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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.

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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.


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