Flavor-Boosting Tricks Add Spark to Healthy Cooking
Chefs share their tips for boosting flavor and nutrition.
You know it when you taste it, but just what is it that distinguishes a
great dish from an ordinary one?
Culinary experts say that chefs and cooks who understand how to develop
layers of flavors, through food combinations and cooking techniques,
get the best results. These simple techniques are great for boosting the flavor
of lower-calorie dishes, which can make them seem more satisfying. Some may
also help to maximize health benefits by improving nutrient absorption.
Sound too good to be true? Read on to learn the secrets of the new culinary
The Art of Flavor Layering
A new generation of food science has emerged that slashes sodium, trims
calories, and increases nutrient absorption.
"We have a greater understanding of how to layer and use flavors,
cooking techniques, and the art of combining foods to create fabulous, healthy
cuisine that is richer in nutrients," says Connie Guttersen, PhD, RD,
author of The Sonoma Diet.
Layering flavors involves cooking techniques that add depth of flavor. Each
step of the cooking process is important -- skip a crucial step and you can't
add back the missed flavor.
These flavor-enhancing techniques include:
- Browning, which adds flavor to everything from coffee
beans to baked goods and meat. One type of browning is searing, which is
heating meat or fish on high heat to lock in juices and flavor and develop a
crust on the outside. The dish is often then finished in the oven. Guttersen
likes to rub meats with spice rubs before searing for a truly flavorful
- Carmelizing, which is another type of browning process
that brings out the natural sweetness in foods, and intensifies flavors and
aromas. If a recipe calls for sautéed onions, "always cook them over medium
heat until the onions take on a golden color," says Guttersen. "That
will add a tremendous flavor to the dish."
- Roasting meats, vegetables, and fruits, yet another way to
bring out their natural goodness. "Pour off the fat and save those browned
bits in the bottom of the roasting pan. This is where the real flavor is,"
says Kyle Shadix, MS, RD, CCC, a chef and dietitian who is president of
Nutrition and Culinary Consultants Inc. He suggests using a liquid to dissolve
the bits (a process called deglazing). Toss in some fresh herbs, and you have a
light and delicious sauce.
- Poaching in white wine or chicken stock, flavored with a
little citrus and herbs or coriander, which is a wonderful way to cook delicate
fish, salmon, or chicken. Reduce the liquid (that is, cook it until it is
reduced in volume) for a tasty sauce.
- Toasting, yet another variation of browning that brings
out flavor, especially in nuts, whole spices, and grains. Toasting releases
natural oils and brings out incredible flavors. Toast ingredients before you
use them in cooking -- this is an example of a step that cannot be added back
after the cooking process has begun.
- Slow cooking. "Most people cook everything on high
heat, too quickly, and destroy potential flavors," Shadix says. Unless
you're searing meat or boiling water, he suggests you turn down the dial and
cook most of your food at lower temperatures.
- Using (a little) real butter. Shadix trained at the Cordon
Bleu in France, where they use lots of butter because "it has more flavor
than canola or olive oil and when you heat it, the flavor gets better," he
says. Fat adds a wonderful layer of flavor, and as long as you use it sparingly
and pour off or skim any extra, it has a place in healthy cuisine.