Seasoning and flavour are so often overlooked in recipes, but they are such a vital part of cooking – especially if you’re dealing with fussy eaters. But how are you meant to know if no one has shown you? There is nothing more frustrating than trying a recipe then it ending up tasting a bit flat, even thought you’ve followed the instructions to the letter.
One of the things I teach my students is that recipe writers have different taste buds and preferences to their readers. Many also assume a lot of knowledge of techniques or have a limited space for their words on a page, so they overlook the detail of how to actually make the food taste good. So you’ll only make food taste amazing if you learn how to tailor it to suit what you like. It really is easy when you get into the habit of thinking about how you taste and what you can add to make your cooking taste amazing.
Follow my 10 tips and you’ll get the confidence and understanding of how to transform your food every time you cook.
10 easy ways to make your cooking taste amazing…
1. Learn how to taste and adjust your food
Most people don’t know what they’re tasting for. So once they taste, if it feels a bit flat they add more salt. Sound familiar?
Here’s the science bit… If all the flavour sensing areas of your mouth are stimulated, your food will taste delicious and balanced. If one area isn’t stimulated your food can taste overly sweet, salty, fatty or just bland.
So I’m going to ask you to get into the habit of always tasting your food before you serve it. Then of thinking through the flavours and adjusting them. Before long you’ll do it without thinking.
Your mouth can sense five flavours:
- Sweet (e.g. roasted vegetables, honey, fruit, caramelised onion)
- Salty (e.g. salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, Parmesan, anchovy).
- Umami that very savoury, base flavour that gives your food guts (e.g. soy sauce, fish sauce, crispy bacon, Parmesan, anchovy, tomato puree, the crust on a burger or steak)
- Sour (e.g. citrus juice, pickled veg, wine, tamarind, vinegar)
- Bitter I bet if you close your eyes and think about this flavour your mouth will water. (e.g. citrus zest, olives, beer, black coffee, dark chocolate, bitter greens)
For food to taste good those flavours should be present and balanced
Think of a plain French fry. A bit dull right? Add salt and we’re getting somewhere, add vinegar and it gets exciting. Dunk that seasoned fry in some ketchup and you’ve checked off all the flavours that we can taste and you can’t stop eating – You’ve combined fat, salt, sour (from the vinegar,) sweet and umami (from the ketchup).
It is all about balancing. Taste your cooking and tinker with the seasonings before you serve – a sprinkle of Parmesan adds a savouriness to a bowl of tomato pasta. Soy sauce adds savoury saltiness to noodles.
Now salt. Try tasting tomatoes, potatoes or cucumber, with and without a pinch of sea salt and tell me what you think. Take it a step further, try a square of chocolate or a ball of chocolate ice cream with a sprinkle of sea salt flakes and see how much more balanced the flavour is. That’s the reason we put salt in baking – to balance out the sugar. But I know salt is the thing that everyone gets nervous about so read this to put yourself at ease.
2. Acid – always finish with acid
By acid I mean vinegar, lime or lemon juice or even a splash of wine. Freshness at the end of a dish lifts all the other flavours and dumbs down any fattiness or heaviness. Most of us are used to seeing a wedge of lemon next to fish, but I can’t think of any food where a hit of acid brightness isn’t transforming.
I find that acid is the thing that transforms vegetables from a battle ground to something people will gobble up. Try adding a splash of lemon juice to greens along with a little bit of butter and salt and you’ll see how much more delicious it will be. A squeeze of lime on a curry or a taco or a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar on a stew or piece of meat brightens everything up.
Next time you make spaghetti Bolognese, add a splash of red wine or red wine vinegar just before serving. Stir and taste the difference. See? Add lime juice to a chilli or a curry. Add a squeeze of lemon to a mushroom risotto. Drizzle vinegar on top of roasted vegetables. You’ll see that all my recipes have a final hit of acid. Before long you’ll be adding acid at the end of all your cooking and wondering why you never did it before.
3. Mix up your textures
The way you taste food isn’t limited to the flavours you add. The texture of what you eat is equally important. Make sure that your meal contains a variety of textures – crunchy, crisp, soft, oozy. And force yourself to eat the various textures together by layering up your meal in a bowl rather than eating it separately.
4. Don’t limit dressings to salads
Make your own dressings (my top 5 recipes are here). Homemade dressings are fast to make, much lower in sugar, salt and weird additives and taste tons much better. Keep them in the fridge and start adding them as a finishing touch to soups, stews and vegetables as a brilliant way to quickly flavour balance.
5. Be brave when you’re browning
Meat cooked in a pan that isn’t hot enough, or is moved around too much will never get chance to brown. Be brave and remember heat + time = colour = flavour.
Don’t feel that by continually stirring meat as it cooks you will stop it from sticking. Sticking isn’t that bad – I’d rather have meat that sticks a little but then goes golden brown than grey meat that doesn’t stick. A drop of liquid at the end of cooking will pull up any bits that stick anyway. This applies to pieces of chicken for a curry, minced meat or bigger pieces of meat for a stew.
I have a special hands-off way of getting maximum colour and flavour into minced meat. Watch my Thai basil stir fry video to see how.
6. Mix up your temperatures
As with flavour and texture. Mixing up temperatures makes your food taste interesting and delicious.
7. Let your meat rest
Once you’ve cooked your meat, leave it to sit and rest for 10-20 minutes, loosely wrapped in foil. Bigger pieces need a longer resting time. This resting gives the fibers in the meat time to relax after the intense heat of the pan (when they contract and toughen up in response to the heat). Resting means the juices spread themselves evenly throughout the meat, so you are left with more tender, juicy meat when you come to eat it.
Most of us know to rest a whole turkey or chicken but all meat needs time to rest. This resting time is also a great time to have a quick tidy up so that the post-dinner clean up is less of a hassle.
8. Use the zest as well as the juice
If you’re buying lemon or lime to add to a recipe, always add the zest. Even if the recipe doesn’t tell you to. Adding the zest adds a ton of flavour but doesn’t affect the texture of a dish in the way adding more juice would. And it is such a waste to throw away all that flavour!
When you’re zesting just do a single swipe of the citrus skin on your zester before turning the fruit and moving to the next patch of skin. The white layer under the coloured zest gets very bitter so you don’t want to add that. I am obsessed with my Microplane zester and take it on holiday with me such is my need for zest.
9. Freshness from herbs
Start thinking of herbs as flavour-packed salad leaves or greens and use them in big quantities. I use a big pile of basil in my Thai basil stir fry– it gives all the nutrients of spinach but has a lot more flavour.
10. And finally. Shop well
Buy the best you can afford when it is in season. That way your food will taste good before you even do anything to it. Try and buy from local smaller producers who will put more care into the ingredients they sell than big chains.
Get more like this
Sign up for my monthly meal plan and recipe service here.