The science behind making flavorful dishes

A tasty dish can never be made with shortcuts. Brown your meat and use plenty of fresh herbs and spices.

While in training to become a cooking teacher a few decades ago, the first thing our group of 12 did each morning before class was prepare a large pot of stock to be used in recipes throughout the day.

Working in four small groups, we had all the ingredients in the stock pot within minutes: chicken, vegetables, herbs, and seasonings, covered with water.

By the time the morning class started, the soup pot was gently bubbling away, perfuming the air. We could have used canned broth or powdered soup base, but the flavor would be compromised.

Chefs learn early in their training the many steps that intensify flavors; some by producing chemical reactions during cooking, some by adding the right flavoring ingredients, and, almost always, using fresh and high-quality ingredients in the correct proportions. Good chefs never take shortcuts and neither should good home cooks. Here are a few basic principles that will add an abundance of flavor to your dishes with just a little bit of extra effort:

The browning reaction

In 1912, French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard conducted a simple experiment in his lab. He heated sugar (in the form of glucose) and glycerin (a sweet syrupy alcohol). Instantly his lab smelled like a kitchen with a faint but distinct aroma of roasting meat – with no meat present. This process became known as the Maillard reaction, or simply the browning reaction, perhaps the most powerful flavor-inducing chemical reaction in your kitchen.

In virtually all recipes that use some kind of meat, poultry, and sometimes fish, the first step is to induce this browning reaction, thus creating flavor. When you place a piece of meat on a hot grill, the browning of the surface changes the taste from bland to a wonderful roasted flavor.

Before browning, pat the meat with a paper towel to make sure it is very dry. Excess moisture will cool the pan, release meat juices, and result in steaming instead of browning the meat. Never overcrowd the pan as this also draws off too much heat. Over high heat with oil, brown the pieces a handful at a time, stirring all the time.

When all the meat or poultry is browned, you are still not done with this step. On the bottom of the pan, there is a layer of stuck browned particles that you don't want to discard with the dishwater. This layer has plentiful flavor that needs to be added to your dish. Deglaze the pan with a small amount of water or wine over low heat. Scrape to speed the process and within a minute the valuable zest is in the liquid. You can use this in a sauce or gravy or simply add it to the liquid if called for in the recipe.

Herbs and spices

The next tool in your bag of flavoring kitchen tricks is the judicious use of herbs and spices. To make dishes really zing using herbs and spices, here are three rules from good chefs:

1. Use them generously.

2. Use them only if reasonably fresh (even dried herbs).

3. Grind them or crush them just before using.

Many recipes are much too shy when using herbs and spices. Usually you can easily double the suggested amount but use your taste to adjust.

Herbs and spices have powerful flavors from a tiny amount of highly aromatic essential oil they contain. But those oils slowly escape over long storage periods, eventually leaving the herbs and spices flavorless. To avoid that, buy them in small quantities that you use up in a year or two. Anything older, do not hesitate to throw away.

According to the McCormick spice company, unground spices keep for about four years, whole dried herbs one to three years, ground herbs one to two years, ground spices and spice mixes one to three years. Assuming, of course, that they are stored in closed containers in a cool place (definitely not near the stove).

Once ground, spices and herbs lose their oils faster and experienced chefs and cooks always buy them whole, then grind or chop fresh herbs, or crush dry ones with their hands just before adding them to the pot.

It's a good idea to label newly bought spices and herbs with a date. It's a waste to throw out a nearly full jar of spices, but it's just as much of a waste to use ancient ones in your dish. In a serious cook's kitchen, an electric or manual spice grinder is an essential tool.

Flavoring ingredients

Food enhancers are standard in the processed food industry in tiny amounts owing to their strong flavors. These are organic substances, mostly natural.

The one every cook knows is MSG or monosodium glutamate. It's a totally natural substance, and virtually all foods contain it in varying amounts. Particularly rich in MSG are cheeses, soy sauce, nuts, tomatoes, mushrooms, and virtually all vegetables contain some. Sprinkling a tiny amount recommended by the manufacturer very much sharpens and enhances flavors.

It may be unfashionable to use additional chemicals in our foods, but I have nothing against adding a naturally occurring one like MSG. Make a chicken soup and add a little to one half. Taste the difference between the two soups. Decide for yourself.

Caramelized onion

Courtesy of Chef Mike Sodaro in Downers Grove, Ill., here is a recipe that utilizes the flavor-inducing browning reaction to the extreme. It is easy but takes time while the onion slowly develops flavor and color. Best to use red onion but common yellow cooking onion works also.

Cut an unpeeled onion into two halves lengthwise, cutting through stem and root ends. Peel, then slice crosswise into thin slices.

For one large onion, heat 1 tablespoon butter (vegetable oil or olive oil is also good but gives less flavor) in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter sizzles, add the onion, stir well, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sauté uncovered until the onion just begins to brown, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn the heat to low, cover the skillet and continue cooking, stirring, and scraping the bottom from time to time until the onion develops a uniform caramel-brown color, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper or any spice of your choice.

Caramelized onion loses a lot of moisture in this process. One large onion shrinks to less than a cup. But the resultant concentrate is heavenly and sweet as honey. Mix it in hamburgers, meatloaf, or scrambled eggs. Use it to top soups, pizza, and mashed potatoes. Puréed and mixed with sour cream, it makes for an unusual dip. Caramelized onion will keep for 6 to 8 days when stored in a closed container in the refrigerator.

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