Flavor-Boosting Tricks Add Spark to Healthy Cooking

Chefs share their tips for boosting flavor and nutrition.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 15, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

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 masters.

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 crust.
  • 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.

Smart Combinations

The other part of the flavor-boosting equation is using ingredients that complement one another.

Combining certain foods not only deepens flavor but can also increase the nutrients your body absorbs from the foods. Foods contain thousands of substances that perform functions in the body, such as vitamins and phytochemicals. In some cases, certain substances, when eaten together, produce a greater effect than when each is eaten alone.

For example, it's a good idea from both a nutrition and taste standpoint to eat dark leafy greens with a little healthy fat. Many people find dark leafy greens bitter, but if you combine them with some fat, acid and heat, the flavor becomes rich and mellow.

"From a nutritional standpoint, the addition of a small amount of fat increases the absorption of the fat-soluble flavonoids in the greens," says Gutterson. "The other ingredients balance the bitterness, and voila, the bitter flavors are replaced with a delicious, mellow flavor that everyone will love."

So forget the fat-free salad dressing and take full advantage of this smart combo. Take it a step further and add toasted almonds to make the dish more complete. Not only does this add richness and texture, the added protein from the nuts makes the greens more satisfying.

Greens and fats are just one of the "dream team combos" from the Sonoma Diet. Here are a few others:

  • Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables enhances the body's absorption of iron from meat, beans, and eggs. Beef and arugula pair beautifully together (see recipe below), as does any meat with greens. Or add vitamin C-rich salsas, chutneys, broccoli, or bell peppers to beans or meat.
  • Whole grains and seeds plus healthy fats are another winning combo. Eat these foods together to enhance absorption of vitamin E from both the seeds and grains and the fats. Add beans, nuts, soy, or any protein-rich food to a whole grain medley; the combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fat will provide a very satisfying meal. Whole wheat wraps with beans, salsa, and cheese, or whole wheat toast with almond butter are examples of these smart combos.
  • Tomatoes plus healthy fats. Cook tomatoes with a little olive oil to release their naturally occurring lycopene, and increase the availability of this antioxidant to your body.

In general, when planning menus, think lots of colors. The more color on your plate, the healthier the meal, says Guttersen. This colorful approach also helps the food look appetizing.

Use these tips and techniques in your own recipes to make every one of those calories count. And don't be afraid to break out of your rut and experiment with new foods and recipes.

"If you pay attention to flavors and learn a few basic cooking techniques, you will be surprised how easy it is to be adventurous and create new dishes that are delicious, nutritious, and reduced in calories," Guttersen says.

High-Flavor Recipes

These recipes from Guttersen's Sonoma Diet Cookbook illustrate just how flavorful healthy cooking can be.

Spice-Roasted Almonds

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal 1 serving as 1 tablespoon nuts.

These almonds are given a treatment of spices and a short baking time for amazing rich flavor and intense crunch.

1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups whole almonds
  • Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, combine chili powder, olive oil, kosher salt, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and pepper; add almonds and toss to coat. Transfer mixture to a 13×9×2-inch baking pan.
  • Bake about 10 minutes or until almonds are toasted, stirring twice. Cool almonds completely before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Yield: 32 (1-tablespoon) servings

Per serving: 62 cal., 5 g total fat (0 g sat. fat), 0 mg chol., 33 mg sodium, 2 g carbo., 1 g fiber, 2 g protein.

Grilled Wine Country Beef with Arugula

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal 1 serving as 1 portion lean meat with sauce, or fried + 1 serving vegetables with 1 tablespoon fat, or 1 frozen dinner, regular.

This dish gives you a taste of umami, the so-called fifth flavor (along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter). Mushrooms (especially dried ones), soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, aged cheese, broccoli, tomatoes, red bell peppers, almonds, meat, and wine are examples of foods rich in umami. Start marinating the meat up to a day in advance to allow the flavors to blend.

4 6-ounce boneless beef sirloin steaks, cut 1 inch thick
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
6 cups torn arugula leaves
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese

  • Trim fat from steaks. Season steaks with kosher salt and black pepper. Place in a large self-sealing plastic bag and set in a shallow dish.
  • For marinade, in a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 tablespoon of the mint, the rosemary, and crushed red pepper. Pour over steaks. Seal bag; turn to coat steaks. Marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 24 hours, turning bag occasionally.
  • For dressing, in a screw-top jar, combine lemon juice, red wine vinegar, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cover and shake well. Season to taste with additional kosher salt and black pepper. Set aside.
  • Drain steaks, discarding marinade. For a charcoal grill, place steaks on the rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium coals. Grill for 14 to 18 minutes for medium-rare doneness (145°F) or 18 to 22 minutes for medium doneness (160°F), turning once halfway through grilling. (For a gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Place steaks on grill rack over heat. Cover and grill as above.)
  • Remove steaks from grill. Cover with foil and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice meat across the grain.
  • In a large bowl combine arugula, celery, tomatoes, and the remaining 1 tablespoon mint. Drizzle with the dressing; toss to coat.
  • To serve, divide arugula mixture among four dinner plates; top with meat slices. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 4 servings

Wine Pairing: Sangiovese

Per serving: 360 cal., 20 g total fat (4 g sat. fat), 105 mg chol., 342 mg sodium, 5 g carbo., 2 g dietary fiber, 39 g protein.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature


SOURCES: Connie Guttersen, PhD, RD, author, The Sonoma Diet and The Sonoma Diet Cookbook; instructor, Culinary Institute of America. Kyle Shadix, CCC, MS, RD, president, Nutrition and Culinary Consultants.

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