Adding flavor to most dishes typically involves ever increasing amounts of sugar or fat. It’s a proven recipe that has worked since the beginning of time. Of course, our early ancestors were always on the move without a care in the world about calories. Calories didn’t exist back then.
Nowadays we move less. We exercise because otherwise we wouldn’t move at all. With our ever-expanding palate come ever-expanding waistbands, but there has to be a way for us to grow our flavor profiles without additional calories. There are! And here are seven ways to do just that.
1. Use Ingredients That Are In Season And Locally Grown
Your grocery store’s produce section might look pretty much the same all year round, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Sure, you’ll find strawberries even in the dead of winter, but the ones you find in July will be so much more juicy and sweet than the ones you find in December.
Remember, freshness equals flavor. When fruits and vegetables are naturally in season, they’ll not only be more flavorful and fresh but less expensive as well.
For even better ingredients, head to your local farmer’s market for heirloom varieties. Heirloom fruits and vegetables haven’t been genetically selected for size or sturdiness for shipping, so they tend to be smaller, more delicate, and more delicious!
2. Do More With Your Aromatics
If you’re already cooking something that involves onions, shallots, garlic, or other aromatics, you can get a boost of flavor if you start the dish by caramelizing or frying them in a little bit of olive oil.
Caramelization happens over low, slow heat. It converts the starches in your aromatics into sugar and lends both sweetness and a complex flavor profile to your dish without additional sweeteners. Try caramelizing onions – they’re an umami-bomb that makes practically anything from a cranberry-walnut salad to a patty melt taste ten times more amazing.
Alongside caramelization is the Maillard reaction – the same reaction that gives seared steaks their delicious charred smokiness occurs when you saute aromatics over high heat. Doing a quick fry of sliced onions in a pan will give you browned edges and an incredible boost in flavor.
3. Season Early With Salt And Spices
Don’t wait until your dish is almost done to season! Adding spices early on allows flavors to emerge over time and penetrate more deeply into the meats and vegetables you’re cooking. Salt draws out moisture from the food it comes into contact with initially but is later reabsorbed, along with the flavors of the other spices that are in your dish.
You should still taste your dish and season towards the end if needed, but by only doing it at the end will result in salty outsides and bland insides.
4. Try A Flavor-Packed Salt Substitute
For many dishes, salt alone is perfect. It allows the natural flavor of your ingredients to shine through. For others, though, there’s more umami to be had by using a savory salt substitute. Try soy sauce or fish sauce for a huge flavor boost not only reserved for stir-fries and noodles. You can add them to pasta sauces, gravies, vinaigrettes, marinades – the possibilities are endless.
If you’re looking to reduce your sodium intake, try using garlic salt instead of your regular salt. The extra umami boost helps compensate for salt that you’d otherwise add.
5. Spice It Up!
Add a bit of a kick with black pepper, red pepper flakes, or some hot sauce! Spiciness adds intrigue to an otherwise ordinary meal, and can help reduce your cravings for fatty, salty, or sweet foods. Spicy foods have also been shown to increase your body’s metabolism, so it can help you burn the calories from your meal faster. A win all around.
6. Add Acidity
Is your dish missing a certain je ne sais quoi? Maybe it needs a little splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice! Acidity is something that a lot of cooks forget to add to their dishes, but just a little can go a long way towards balancing and perking up the flavors within.
Protip: when using lemon or lime juices, add them at the end – cooking them dulls their brightness.
7. Toss In Fresh Herbs
Roughly chop some fresh parsley, basil or cilantro and add them to your dish. Not only will it look more Instagram-worthy, but the taste and smell of fresh herbs also can’t be surpassed – dried, cooked herbs are no substitute.
Try whole basil leaves in your spinach salad or a handful of flat-leaf parsley in your carbonara to bump up flavor, texture, and nutrition!