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In the course of my culinary endeavors I am often queried about the nutritional aspects of food and cooking: everything from the vitamin content of foods, to ways of reducing calories, to avoidance of substances that are “bad” for you. OK brace yourself, because I’m about to espouse some unmitigated heresy: Food is not about nutrition. Gasp! What did he say???? Mouths are agape as glasses fall to the floor. If this were the Middle Ages, such polemics would get me burned at the stake.
For me, food is about enjoyment and fulfillment, first on an immediate, sensory level and secondly on a deeper psychological level. As a chef, and a non health-freak, my primary goal is maximizing the physical enjoyment of food. If that in turn leads to enhancing the overall experience, so much the better. Hence, a key differential between a chef and a layman is the chef is savvy about the various means of amplifying the taste of food.
This is the first of a two-part article which peruses some of the most common techniques for maximizing flavor in your foods. Keep in mind these guidelines are not about health, convenience or saving time or money. They’re unabashedly about flavor.
USE FRESH, HIGH QUALITY INGREDIENTS
This one cannot be overstressed. A crucial variable that distinguishes top-notch restaurants is their reliance on fresh, high quality ingredients. Not to take anything away from their chefs but even the best craftsmen in the world are limited if their raw materials are execrable. Really good restaurants, with high turnover, have fresh products coming in daily, or almost daily. Their executive chefs are extremely choosy about their vendors and they scrutinize every delivery. Produce hails from local growers with solid reputations, the seafood has been caught within 24 hours and the beef is prime grade.
The home cook can employ similar tactics when food shopping. Avoid the temptation of saving a buck with the “today’s special," meat on its expiration date or the wilted produce on sale. Inspect your meat, seafood, and produce with a fine tooth comb. It might mean forgoing a particular recipe if the requisite ingredients are not at their peak and making something else.
Fresh herbs and spices are always desirable but if you do use jarred spices remember whole spices are kaput in a year and ground spices are has-beens in six months. For maximal flavor, you should rely on whole spices and grind them as you need them.
Oh, and ixnay on freezing. No food in the world tastes better previously frozen then fresh. If flavor and not convenience is your goal, the freezer is for ice cream, ice cubes and vodka.
STORE INGREDIENTS PROPERLY
Ideally, raw materials should be consumed the day they are purchased. This is especially true for seafood. However, if circumstances dictate that there must be some lag time, know how to store your various victuals appropriately. Most vegetables do best in a cold fridge in a plastic bag. Some should be wrapped in damp toweling to inhibit moisture loss such as lettuces. Some should never be refrigerated, e.g., tomatoes, garlic, onions, potatoes. Herbs do well in the fridge in a vase of water like flowers. Live shellfish should never be stored in an air-tight bag, (because they’re alive and need to breathe). In a nutshell, you need to do your homework about each item’s stowage. Failure to do so is always punished by flavor loss.
PREPARE INGREDIENTS ACCORDINGLY
Most foods require same kind of preparation before they are ready to be utilized in the recipe at hand. Often these initial procedures are nothing more than washing, cutting and trimming. However, depending on the food, there are a variety of other techniques that can boost flavor at the prep stage.
Nuts and coconut flakes can be toasted prior to incorporation into a dish. The heat releases the essential oils and heightens their taste. Simply add them to a dry pan at low to medium heat and swirl them until they start to brown and their nutty aroma is released. Bread crumbs can also be pre-toasted although here I’d advise adding some fat and seasoning to the pan before doing so.
Similarly, many other items that can be added raw can push the flavor curve by pre-cooking them instead. Tomatoes, peppers, and garlic are just a few of the items that can be roasted and then added to dishes like salsas, salad dressings, and marinades.
Liquids can be reduced to intensify flavor. Suppose you wish to make a citrus vinaigrette that calls for 1 oz. of citrus juice. Two ounces of citrus juice simmered down to one ounce will carry more citrus punch than one ounce of raw juice. Cream, stock, and wine are just some of the other fluids which can benefit from condensation.
Brining is a method to make proteins juicer and tastier. A brine is basically a salt-water solution. Via the process of osmosis meat soaked in a brine will absorb some of the fluid and therefore be juicier. Moreover, the salt thwarts some of the coagulation of the protein strands during cooking, thus rendering them tenderer. The meat will also absorb some salt, (not as much as you’d think), but nevertheless you can compensate by not salting the exterior as much prior to cooking. The meat will also absorb other flavor elements in the brine. Therefore, brines may contain sugar, fruit juices, aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices, etc. But at the very least, employ one cup kosher salt for every gallon of water. Dissolve the salt in the water and submerge the meat. The larger the piece, the longer the soak. Brining is best for turkey, chicken, pork, and shrimp.
Join me next week for more tips on maximizing flavor.