How to Cook: A Beginner’s Guide to Flavor

It’s unfortunate that cooking isn’t really taught in most schools. When I was in middle school we had F.A.C.E. (family and consumer education) which was a type of modernized home ec, but it didn’t really teach any useful skills. I recall baking cookies once (half the class burned them), we made mac and cheese from a box, we sewed a pillow, and we learned that we weren’t allowed to call a metal spatula a “spatula,” and had to refer to it as a “metal slotted turner” if the teacher was in earshot. Not helpful.

Unless you have a parent to teach you when you’re young or the drive to teach yourself when you’re older, most of us never learn to cook more than the bare minimum. This is evident in the fact that most recipes you’ll see online are described with the words “quick,” “easy,” or “simple.” More complicated recipes are cast to the side due to the number of ingredients needed or the time they take to make. And when you can buy something ready-made in the store, most people don’t see the need to make it from scratch. My favorite example is pancake mix. While it’s easy to combine the mix with water and cook it on the griddle, it’s a bit of a one trick pony that winds up being more time consuming and expensive in the long run. Rather than buying and finding space for different boxes of mixes (pancake, brownie, cookie, cake, Belgian waffle, biscuit, muffin, coffee cake, pizza dough, pie crust, cornbread, etc), if you have the ingredients on hand – all fridge and pantry staples – then you can make any of those things on a whim with minimal time commitment.

I learned the basics as a child, but I learned how to be a good cook from watching TV. That might sound strange, but it’s true. Alton Brown (particularly on Good Eats and Iron Chef) taught me the basics and clearly explained why certain techniques and flavor combinations work and others don’t, which made cooking seem easy. Cooking competition shows (Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, Guy’s Grocery Games) taught me that you can make delicious food with less-than-ideal ingredients so long as you know how to balance the flavors. Julia Child taught that mistakes are okay, and if you don’t succeed the first time you should get back up and try again. Essentially, once you learn how different flavors play off each other (and pick up some basic cooking techniques), you can make almost anything.

As I’ve grown as a home cook, I’ve found that recipes are more like suggestions – I get the general idea, and then I make what I can with what I have. I like to keep a full pantry, and buy shelf-stable ingredients when I see them on sale rather than when a recipe calls for them (a 20-ingredient recipe is so much less daunting when you already have 15 on hand). And when I see a weird ingredient on sale that I’ve seen used on TV or in a recipe that looked interesting, I buy it. My husband makes fun of me for it, but “What if I need it some day?” is practically my motto. There are very few items that I’ve purchased that I didn’t wind up using, and once you’ve used something in a recipe once it’s so much easier to incorporate it into your cooking in the future.

So if you long to be a better cook but don’t know where to start, here are some tips to get you going:

  • Don’t be afraid to try something new, or to try a new recipe for an old favorite.
  • Prep your ingredients before you begin – this is called “mise en place”. When I can, I like to chop my veggies (and whatever other prep is needed) in the morning so that I can jump right into cooking in the evening.
  • Taste as you go, and don’t be afraid to alter the recipe if needed – there are few things more disappointing than spending an hour or more making a mediocre meal.
  • You don’t have to follow the recipe exactly, and it’s okay to google “[ingredient] substitute” for ingredients you don’t have.
  • Baking and cooking are two very different things. A cooking recipe can be altered on the fly to suit your tastes, but a recipe for baked goods should be followed to the letter until you know what you’re doing.
  • When used properly, salt makes food taste more like itself (if you can taste the salt itself, then you’ve gone too far). If your food tastes bland, try adding a little more salt and taste again.

When you first start cooking, the thought of altering a recipe or going rogue without a recipe can be intimidating. Remember that cooking is all about finding a balance between different flavor elements. The ideal dish should have a little of everything, and if you taste a dish and find that it’s too sweet, too bitter, etc, then you can use other flavors to balance it out.

SWEET

Sweetness can come from sugar, honey, fruit, and certain vegetables. It balances out bitter and sour flavors, and can help to cut through spicy foods (fun fact – the ScovilleĀ scale is a measure of how much sugar it takes to neutralize the heat in a pepper). It can also give savory dishes a bit more depth of flavor when used judiciously. If a dish is too sweet, you can cut it back by adding acid or spice.

SALTY

Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient. It can balance out bitter flavors, and can enhance the flavors of pretty much everything else. If you’ve gone too far and you’re actually tasting the salt (rather than tasting what the salt has done to the other flavors), then the only remedy is to dilute the dish with non-salty ingredients.

BITTER

Bitterness isn’t a flavor that most people appreciate, but it does an amazing job of cutting through the richness or sweetness of a dish. It’s why we use bittersweet chocolate chips in cookies, and why bitter greens (like kale and collard greens) go so well with a rich steak dinner. It’s interesting to note here that children often dislike bitter foods, and that salt does a poor job of balancing bitterness for kids (even if we can’t taste it, they can). It’s hypothesized that bitter flavors are biologically associated with poisonous plants and children’s taste buds experience this flavor more intensely than adults, so your child’s tongue may literally be telling them that broccoli is poison. Don’t worry – they’ll grow out of it.

ACID

Sourness comes primarily from things like vinegar and citrus fruits. Acidity in a dish is often overlooked, but it can help to cut through fat, add brightness, and counteract sweetness and heat. If a dish is too acidic, add a little sweetness to balance it out.

UMAMI

Umami is a difficult flavor to describe. It’s the savory taste we get from things like soy sauce, mushrooms, meat and cheese. It adds a certain “umph” to a dish. When a meal seems balanced but is still lacking, umami can add a depth of flavor that rounds it all out. Salt can enhance an umami flavor, and anything else (sweet, sour, spicy, bitter) will cut through it.

FAT

Fats can mellow other flavors and create a sense of depth and richness. They’re particularly good at toning down spicy flavors, and can be reduced by adding acid. Dairy products are the most commonly used fats (butter, cream, sour cream, cream cheese, yogurt), but you can also use coconut milk, nuts, peanut butter, avocado, or mayo to add fat into a dish.

SPICY

Spicy foods add intensity to a dish. When used raw, the heat can often be overwhelming and unpleasant, but these flavors typically mellow out as they cook. We tend to think of peppers as being the only “spicy” foods, but horseradish, raw garlic, radishes, ginger, mustard seeds, wasabi, and raw onions can all be used to add to a dish’s heat level and complexity. If a dish is too spicy you can tone it down with acid, sweetness, or fat. Keep in mind when you’re cooking for others that everyone experiences heat differently – what’s pleasantly spicy to you likely feels like a chemical burn to me.

So what do I want you to take away from this? Cooking food people want to eat isn’t difficult. It’s intimidating in the beginning for sure, but you can do it. Cooking all comes down to flavors and technique, and once you understand how different flavors interact with each other then you’ve won half the battle. We’ll talk about technique next time, but for now I want you to get out there and make something delicious!

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