The Art of Building Flavors, a Chef’s Secret Weapon

Photo Credit: Olaf Broeker

Ever wonder why, when eating at most restaurants, the food just tastes better than what we make at home? Yes, a homemade soup tastes pretty good on a cold winter evening in front of the fireplace, but at your favorite steak house? It’s like the flavor is turned up to 11. Or the Porterhouse you sliced through tastes like it was made by some sort of food-god, just too good to discuss. I bet you’re wondering how they do that? Their secret? Good quality ingredients, yes, but more importantly, they are building flavors.

What is that, you ask? When we build something, like a house, for example, one must start off with a good foundation, put up some walls, then the roof. You can’t have a house without first creating the foundation. Building flavors starts before the finished product is ready to eat. It’s the foundation of great tasting food.

We have over 10, 000 taste buds that send flavor signals to our brains. Our tongues can taste sweet, salty, bitter and sour as well as the unexplainable umami, that mysterious 5th taste. A great chef knows how the tongue works and can use it as a tool to keep diners happy and coming back.

Building flavors starts before the finished product is ready to eat. It’s the foundation of great tasting food.

Let’s use our recent soup example I mentioned above. Soup, at its most basic, is pretty much a liquid, some vegetables and maybe some meat. Simple. You could just toss all that together, bring it to a boil and have soup. The result, although technically soup, would most likely be bland, flat and boring. To get big, bold flavors, you have to build them from the ground up, just like a house. The result would take that boring, flat liquid and create something with personality, depth, and interest for the palate. How do we do this, you may ask? Get rid of the water, produce some color and don’t forget the seasoning. Of course, a little practice works too.

To make this soup blow our minds, we need to pull as much flavor out of our ingredients as possible. Water, although has the amazing ability to pull flavors out of food, doesn’t put anything INTO the food, except blandness. It’s best to remove this water from the ingredients. When putting flavors into food, we have to use something a bit more forceful and giving. Separately; butter, olive oil, carrots, celery, onions, and garlic taste pretty good. Ask yourself, “How can I make these tastes better than it would taste alone?”

Place them all in the bottom of a soup pot, turn up the heat and start cooking them together until they become brown and caramelized, pushes flavor into itself within itself. Add a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a couple bay leaves and a splash of something acidic, like white wine, citrus juice or vinegar, and now these great flavors become something completely different. We cook all this down until it’s all brown and golden, this is the base of some great soup. Can we do better? Yes, why not add a little tomato paste to that? Perhaps some Worcestershire sauce? Cook all this down to a bold-flavored base and we can now move forward. Add some stock that we made with this same rule-of-thumb. We build flavors when we make stock (roast the bones, sauté the vegetables, add some wine, and so on) therefore it will add yet MORE flavor to our soup base that is browning away in the bottom of our soup pot. We bring that liquid to a boil, whisking in the stuff at the bottom, then reduce that chicken stock-laden-vegetable mix to pull out and concentrate the notes from the stock. Remember, these things push flavor into itself within itself. It’s like some sort of culinary matrix that can barely be explained.

Let’s discuss a few other examples of building flavors. Let’s say we have a nice big zucchini that we picked from our garden. We could, in theory, just cut it up and sauté it in a hot pan with a little olive oil. It would be a nice green side of vegetable with our dinner. But, take that same zucchini, heat up a pan and add a thinly sliced shallot, a clove of chopped garlic to some olive oil, brown them together slightly with a sprig of rosemary, cooking them down to soft, translucent sheen. We take these humble ingredients and coax the bland water out and, as a result, add depth. This will make a nice base for our zucchini. We stir that with our zucchini all around until the liquid has almost completely evaporated, add a pinch of chili flakes, a nob of butter and a splash of lemon juice, maybe a little dry white wine. Let’s not forget the kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Remember, we want to hit all the sections of our tongues! A fat pinch of fresh chopped parsley for eye-appeal and we have now built some amazing flavors all in one pan and didn’t have to break a sweat to do it!

Remember, these things push flavor into itself within itself. It’s like some sort of culinary matrix that can barely be explained.

When making tomato sauce, ask yourself how we can make this tomato taste its best. Remember, the number one best way to build flavor is to, basically, remove as much water as we can. Most vegetables are full of water and, as we know, water has no flavor at all. You remove the water, you create bigger flavors. For example, we throw a handful of onions and some garlic in the bottom of a big soup pot with some olive oil, we must sweat them down a bit to start the building of flavors. As the water evaporates, the sugars start to become brown and true flavor starts to become prevalent. Add those perfectly red, juicy tomatoes (that have had the skins and seeds removed, of course) and cook them down. The water in the tomatoes adds little to the sauce. We must remove it by ways of evaporation. This is why granny had the “gravy” on all day, to reduce the water out of it and concentrate those great flavors. You see, we’ve been building flavors for centuries, and most of us didn’t even know it!

We should remove water even when we are cooking a steak. Blot them with paper towels before liberally sprinkling salt and pepper on them. Again, hot pan, good sear, some butter, fresh herbs, a little lime juice, etc. Play around, you know what you like!

To keep it simple, remember three things; to build flavors, we must remove the water, add salt and pepper to everything and use the best ingredients you can find. Everything else is really just trial and error. We have to burn a few things or taste a lot of bland food to really understand how building flavors work. To cook well, we must eat well. Go out and eat at as many restaurants as you can afford, practice with your palate! If this were easy, there would be no need to go out to a restaurant!