You all know I love to cook. I love to create recipes and I am admittedly TERRIBLE at following someone else’s recipe. I always veer off course and just do what I want…a little bit of this, a little bit of that, that looks like its about a tablespoon…etc. I rarely measure anything unless I am creating a recipe to post on the blog, then I write down what I do, test it a few times, adjust accordingly and then post only the best final recipe results. I measure all for you guys!!
But seriously, for me, when I cook, just winging it really works. And I often have a difficult time understanding how other people can operate any other way when cooking! I know that Ben needs EXACT instructions when cooking and he uses…like basically every single pot, pan, plate and measuring device in the house when he makes dinner (which is rarely ever). I also have MANY friends who make my blog recipes all the time and text me constant questions about ingredient sizes etc…and my first response is…. UM IDK, does it look and taste right?!? Does your onion look too crazy big? Are those peppers extra spicy?? I do not know because I am not in their kitchen and I am not in your kitchen to coach you along and make sure it’s all going OK. So this is where using your best judgement comes in and tasting as you go!
I get a lot of questions clarifying recipe details about things that I think of as just general knowledge….things people should be able to figure out easily. BUT I am finding that a lot more people than I had realized just don’t really know the basics of cooking.
The basics, meaning: what makes food taste good, what flavors work together and balance out, how to properly cook foods to the right temperature or consistency, and how to improvise when you need to.
So because of this observation, I am writing a three-part blog post about how to be a better cook. In these three posts I will explain how to balance flavors, cook food to perfection easily and how to wing it when you have to. I hope that these tips will help everyone when it comes to cooking…and maybe inspire some of you to cook more and have some fun with it!
So here goes PART 1 of the Be A Better Cook Series…
How To Be a Better Cook: Balancing Flavors- the Basics
Flavors are everything when it comes to food. Especially when it comes to healthy cooking, and if you are here on my page…you are probably interested in eating and living healthier! In order to keep food tasting good without adding excess sugar and fat, you need to add lots of healthy flavors that jazz up the meal without weighing it down with heavy sauces etc.
This is where spices come in!
My spice rack is pretty stocked with almost every spice you can imagine and I constantly restock the favorites, which are:
Himalayan sea salt
Black pepper (fresh grinder cap!)
Red chili flakes
I will talk more about what spices typically go with which foods in another part of this post series when I discuss the ability to wing it and have some fun!
But for now, I want to discuss balancing flavors. It is important to understand the science of balancing flavors in a dish, so that you can use it all on the fly when you cook. And when something doesn’t taste quite right, you’ll be able to figure out what it is missing and adjust ingredients accordingly.
When it comes to balancing flavors, if you add too much of one flavor profile, add more of the others to correct the balance, to make the food taste right. The basics of flavor balancing is simple- to make food taste good you need to have a good balance of acid, sweetness and salt. Those are the three basic flavor profiles…and from there you can play with heat and umami (which is a savory, rich flavor).
So, let’s go over what the three key flavor profiles are and how to use them!
Acid includes anything acidic which means:
Tomato based sauces
I use variations of these three acids to enhance the flavor of my cooking all the time! Acids add that tang to food, that brightness and freshness you need to balance out the sweet and salty. I love cooking with wine, lemon juice, lime juice, rice vinegar, dry white wine and canned tomatoes because they all have a punchy flavor and add a lot to a dish. Whenever you need more acid, these are the ingredients to focus on!
This may be some people’s favorite part! HA! I tend to be light-handed when it comes to adding sweetness, but I do add it when I need to…and most dishes need some sweet to make it taste well rounded and most delicious. If a dish tastes too punchy, acidic or salty, I will add a little bit more sweetness to balance out the flavor profile. I add a little at first, taste test the food and then add more if needed.
The sweeteners I like to use are:
Organic brown sugar
Maple/Agave blend syrup
Fresh fruit juice
SALT IS MY FAVORITE!! I love salty foods, and you SHOULD be eating salt …just make sure you don’t eat too much and you focus on eating the right types of salts.
BUT, salt is maybe the most essential seasoning to use when it comes to cooking. I can’t stress that enough- you need to salt foods when you are cooking, especially meats and fish! Salt allows meats (and veggies actually) to brown properly and it helps the meat hold in all of it’s juices. Juicier fish and meat is better, right? So to get that juicy, perfect meal, you need to salt the outside of the food before adding it to the heat. A lot of people ask me how much salt to add when salting before cooking…and the answer is: just eyeball it. Sprinkle some salt on the top, but don’t over coat. You can always add more later, but it is hard to make things less salty.
BUT, if you do happen to accidentally make a dish too salty, the best thing to do is add some more acid and some more sweetness to hopefully balance out the saltiness. As a rule of thumb though, make sure to use less salt and then add more later. Start with a little, then add more. When tasting your food, if it seems to just be “missing something” it may most likely be lacking salt, from my experience. So, sprinkle a little in and re-taste. Salt is a food game changer! And again, you need salt so don’t be afraid to use it!
And as for heat (spice) and umami…these are more advanced flavors to work with, but if you want to play around…go for it! I love spicy food, so I am heavy handed with the chili flakes, cayenne, chili peppers etc!
One thing to note: if you use a bottled chili sauce like Sriracha or any type of hot sauce, be mindful of how much salt you also add to the dish. These bottled hot sauces have A LOT of salt in them, so whenever I use them, I either cut out salt in the recipe or I just use a tiny bit to brown the meat. Otherwise, you will be eating a total salt bomb! NO GOOD!
Umami is a complicated flavor to explain. To add umami to a dish, I typically use vegan butter, bacon, anchovy paste, red wine or Trader Joe’s Umami Paste. These ingredients add a depth and richness to a meal that just takes it to the next level. And a little bit goes a long way. I love adding a little bit of freshly cooked, chopped bacon to a sauce to make it taste super yummy without adding many calories.
I’m shooting my last week up here in Vancouver! It is super cold where we are shooting today, and in the middle of a total snow storm! Watch my Instagram stories to peep all the latest!