So, it has come to my attention lately that one of the biggest challenges for new cooks is knowing what to add to a meal to give it flavor.
When I first married Tim my new sister-in-law’s mom gave me a basket of all the ingredients to make the best spaghetti ever. When I asked her how much to add, she said, “I brown the meat in a frying pan, pour the tomato sauce over it, and then I add spices until the surface is black.” That is how I learned to be unafraid of adding lots of spices. Think,”Is the surface covered yet?” Sometimes you don’t need more options of ingredients, just more of what you already put in.
When learning to cook, one thing to be sure to do is learn what you definitely dislike so you can avoid adding that to foods, even if a recipe says to use it. For example, I really hate almond extract, anise (black licorice), balsamic vinaigrette, and capers. Even if recipes call for these ingredients I will omit them and add something else to take up the empty space that their flavors would have filled. You will have to figure out what you like and dislike, and what you really love and want to add to each dish.
Below I will lay out some options I regularly use to really give food that “something” it needs. The list is far from complete, but I hope it will get you started.
All savory foods can use…
- Onions or dehydrated onion powder or flakes
- Garlic or dehydrated garlic powder
- Ground black pepper
- Bouillon – It is very salty, so you may want to add this before salt and I often opt to omit salt after adding bouillon. It comes in many flavors, including beef, chicken, pork, vegetable, and mushroom. It has a very savory flavor in a concentrated form, so it is easy to amp up a meal quickly. Bouillon granules are easiest to use but have MSG in them. I use “Better Than Bouillon” which is a paste that I can get locally. Paste is a more traditional form, and can be made at home if you desire to do so. Look online at “101cookbooks.com” for the recipe.
- Parsley or dried parsley – this is literally just a flavor enhancer, but use it carefully- too much will make your dish taste like hay.
Mexican foods can use…
- Ground cumin – (pronounced coo’-min) this gives that true tex-mex flavor that all taco seasonings and fast-food Mexican joints have. It is not spicy, just flavorful. I use this in all of my Mexican foods, and my taco seasoning has a liberal dose.
- Chili powder – this will give things a little more spice, but also a roasted richness. It’s great in more than just chili though- a little can go in any Mexican food you make to round out the flavor.
- Paprika – I used to think this had no flavor, but in recent years I have added it to my arsenal. It rounds things out, and is not spicy, almost sweet, actually.
- Dried oregano – use very sparingly in Mexican foods, but it too adds a little something that you can’t really put your finger on.
- Salsa – I use this as the base in my red and white chilis, as part of the sauce for my enchiladas, and in a black bean bake I make (that recipe will be here someday). It already has tons of flavor, and it can eliminate several steps if the recipe you are using calls for a can of tomatoes, chopped onion, garlic, and chopped peppers.
- Cheddar cheese – Obvious, I know, but when in doubt, add some. The sharper, the better, in my opinion. Finely grated makes it last longer.
- Sour cream – Again, obvious, but it does wonders for the too spicy.
- Any of the ingredients listed in the “All Savory…” section, except the parsley.
Italian foods can use…
- Basil, dried or fresh – smell this before using, as it can have more of a anise (black licorice) flavor than expected. I like it dried better than fresh, but it can really make a meal pop with bright summer flavor if used fresh.
- Oregano, dried or fresh – I absolutely love oregano. It makes it’s way into all of my Italian foods. It can be used very liberally if dried or can impart more of that brightness if used fresh.
- Rosemary, dried or fresh – I never use this, due to the pine needle texture, but it really does add good flavor. I recommend putting a sprig of dried in a bottle of olive oil, letting it sit a week or so, and using that in things.
- Olive oil – Extra virgin is the first press of the olives, and has the greenest color and strongest flavor. If you are new to olive oil, I recommend using just a “Pure” olive oil, but if you want take things up a notch, go for the “EVOO” as Rachel Ray puts it. I use this to keep my pastas from sticking once it is drained, and for sauteing onions and garlic for all Italian dishes.
- Parmesan cheese – This seems silly, but it can really make a meal amazing. I use the fresh grated type instead of the shaker type, as it is better tasting and melts somewhat. You can also use Romano or Asiago, though Asiago is a little stronger. Of all three, Romano is my favorite.
- Mozzarella cheese – This also is just cheese, and you already know what to do with it.
- Any of the ingredients listed in the “All Savory…” section except the bouillon.
Homestyle foods can use…
- Sage, dried or fresh - I generally use this dried, but I have seen chefs on TV use it fresh to stuff meat and things like that. It has a mellow herb-y flavor, and is good in any type of meat or meat dish in which you really want that more rustic flavor.
- Tarragon - this is great in chicken dishes to just really amp up the flavor.
- Dill weed – Used primarily in fish dishes. I like it in small amounts, but I rarely omit it from my fish dishes.
- Oregano – This can be good to give a subtle herb flavor to any type of soup or stew, but use sparingly unless you want it to taste like Italy.
- Thyme - Thyme is pronounced like “rhyme” or “time.” I use this in chicken noodle soup to really make it homey. It is really powerful though, so be very sparing with it. I literally use a sprinkle or two in a whole pot of soup, and it does the job.
- Any of the ingredients listed in the “All Savory…” section.
Comfort foods can use…
- Cheese – any type that goes well with the flavor and will be the correct texture when you are done. For example, I have never melted Colby into anything except rubber, so I don’t use it in casseroles.
- Sour cream – this can substitute milk in many recipes, since it melts a lot.
- Creamed soups or homemade roux-based white sauces with the appropriate veggies/meats, and broths.
- Alfredo sauce – this is great for anything needing a comfort food creaminess.
- French fried onions – These are not just for green bean casserole! They are good on anything that could benefit from some onion.
- Prepared stuffing – This is full of bouillon, onion, and garlic, so if you want to make a simple white sauce, add some cooked meat, and a bag of frozen veggies, pour it into a pan and top it with stuffing, you need not add anything else. Super easy and delicious.
- Butter crackers – Crushed, they are a perfect topper for many casseroles.
- Bacon – Need I say more?
- Ranch dressing – This is good for more than just salad. It melts, is very flavorful (especially onion and garlic-y) and is very creamy. I have used it in hot appetizers, pasta salads, and melts. Very delish.
- Breakfast sausage – Seasoned and rich, a little goes a long way to add what the Japanese call “umami” or, that indefinable warmth of flavor.
- Mushrooms – I know they are often hated, but they too are great for “umami.”
- Any of the ingredients listed in the “All Savory…” section.
Crunchy breadings can use…
- Seasoned croutons – Crushed, these add lots of flavor and texture.
- Corn meal – not a lot of flavor, but great for that crispiness.
- Butter crackers – Ritz really knew what people love. Crush these up for a wonderful butteriness.
- Parmesan cheese – Use the shaker kind, or the fresh grated, both will crisp up and add a lovely aged richness.
- Any of the ingredients listed in the “All Savory…” section except bouillon.
This list is far from complete, but it will hopefully get you started on your journey to make each and every dish worth the effort of making.