Easy ways to increase flavor in your food
Whether you’re a freshman on an unlimited meal plan or an off-campus upperclassman, you’ve’ve probably had your fair share of bland or unsatisfying meals. Here are four tips that will quickly ramp up the flavor of your meals, without requiring too much extra time or money on your part.
1. Look to glutamates and nucleotides to increase the depth of flavor. Amino acids and essential macromolecules aren’t just important when you’re studying for your Bio 13 test, they also significantly improve the flavor of your food. Glutamates are responsible for giving food “umami,” or meaty flavor.
Common foods that are high in glutamates include anchovies, dried shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and parmesan cheese. While glutamates do a great job on their own of increasing a dish’s flavor, they also work synergistically with nucleotides (specifically, guanylate or inosinate) for an even more powerful dose of umami. Some classic food pairings that include glutamates and nucleotides are parmesan cheese with anchovies, fish sauce with soy sauce, blue cheese with walnuts, and tomato paste with mushrooms.
At home: Saute mushrooms with olive oil and onions, then add some chopped cherry tomatoes and cook lightly to make a quick sauce for pasta. Add a few teaspoons of soy sauce to your next pot of chili, and a couple minced anchovy fillets with a teaspoon of worchestire sauce added to a braised pork shoulder, pot roast, or slowly cooked chicken thighs to increase the flavor of an inexpensive cut of meat.
In the dining hall: If you’re feeling creative, take the time to mix up a faux-mushroom risotto. On days when the burger bar is out, grab a spoonful of sauteed mushrooms and put them in a bowl with some cooked rice, about a tablespoon of water, a small pat of butter, a dash of garlic or onion powder, and a few drops of soy sauce (not too much, try for less than a quarter teaspoon to avoid overwhelming the dish). Microwave your rice mixture for 1-2 minutes, then stir it up and top with parmesan cheese.
2. Release the flavor compounds in foods through strategic heating. Most of the powerful flavor compounds in foods are not water soluble and release most of their flavor compounds when the temperatures rise above 300 degrees. The problem is, once liquid is added to a dish, the temperature doesn’t rise above 212 degrees, making all of those flavor compounds unused. That’s why toasting spices in a dry pot perfumes the kitchen much more effectively than throwing some curry powder in an already-bubbling pot of soup. To utilize all of the flavors from a spice or dried herb, pre-toast the spices in a recipe before adding the broth, tomatoes, or vegetables.
At home: Toast your spices in a dry skillet before using them in the recipe, then bloom them in hot oil before you add any water or broth to the pan. You’ll notice that your soups, curries, and sauces with have a more vibrant, pronounced flavor.
In the dining hall: Drizzle a little oil oil into a bowl, then add your spice of choice–garlic powder, oregano, or chili flakes–and microwave the mixture for just under a minute. Then use the oil as a flavoring agent for your meal. You can toss the oil with some chickpeas, cooked grains (quinoa and brown rice are often in the vegetarian section), and feta, drizzle it onto a baked potato, or use it as a dip for bread or pita. For a sweet twist, microwave some honey with a few shakes of cinnamon, then swirl into yogurt or spread onto a toasted english muffin or bagel.
3. Use acidic ingredients to brighten dishes and provide freshness. When a dish seems bland or uninteresting, it is often not missing salt but rather an acidic component. A splash of lemon juice or vinegar is an easy way to quickly enhance the flavor of your meal.
At home: Stir 1-2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar into a pot of lentil soup, or a teaspoon of red wine vinegar into tomato sauce. A drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar will heighten the flavor of a bruschetta or crostini–try toasted baguette spread with ricotta and topped with balsamic reduction and freshly ground black pepper.
In the dining hall: On nights when salmon or any type of fish is served, grab a lemon wedge from the tea station and squeeze it onto your fish. To liven up steamed vegetables, toss them with some olive oil and lemon juice from the salad bar. On days when lime wedges are available, squeeze a few onto a plate of black beans with rice and salsa.
4. Make even the most basic dishes interesting with a flavorful but simple sauce. When you want an simple, quick meal it can be all too easy to throw together a healthful, but boring meal. We’ve all been there: chicken and rice, plain pasta, or a microwaved quesadilla are all fast to prepare but fairly unsatisfying in terms of flavor. Just taking an extra 2 minutes to whip up a quick sauce to dress your food can really spice up your meal.
At home: Once or twice a week, try your hand at a few new sauce recipes. Make some tahini sauce for your lentil wraps, or a roasted tomato and brown-butter sauce for when supermarket tomatoes aren’t at their best.
In the dining hall: To liven up a meal of chicken or tofu with rice, mix together a quick peanut satay sauce. From the condiment station and salad bar, mix together a spoonful of peanut butter with an equal amount of soy sauce, a small squeeze of sriracha, some lemon juice, and a dash of garlic powder. Then stir in a couple tablespoons of hot water from the tea spigot until the sauce it the consistency of hot fudge sauce. Then drizzle it onto your meal and enjoy. You can also make a hummus-based sauce to serve with a wrap of chickpeas, cucumber slices, and feta cheese. Just whisk together a spoonful of hummus with some lemon juice and olive oil.