Think back to the best meal you’ve ever had…go ahead, I’ll wait a moment. What was special about it? The flavors…complex yet subtle, layered by the chef to compliment each other left you with an experience. Far from plain chicken breasts and steamed broccoli, right? With a little know-how and a bit of creativity, you can make super tasty, rockstar-status meals.
It’s all about balancing flavors (this could be a long lesson but I’ll keep it to the basics). For novice cooks, try working with this simple triad: salt, acid and aromatics. For example, if a dish just tastes flat, try adding an acid like vinegar or citrus juice to brighten it up.
If you want to go a bit further, you can play with notes of bitter, savory (umami) and spicy.
You can create big flavors, too and it’s as simple as having these five Paleo-friendly, taste-tickling juggernauts on hand. These are my must-haves that I always have around my kitchen.
The options are pretty endless here and it’s generally accepted that vinegars (except for malt vinegar…derived from grain) are Paleo-friendly. Besides the obvious use in dressings or condiments, vinegar is a great way to add a bright note to veggies or heavy dishes like stews.
Okay, this one can be controversial. Some folks who follow a very strict Paleo template don’t use any salt. At all. I tried this when I started Paleo 4 years ago, and it made food pretty boring. By avoiding processed foods, the amount of sodium intake in your diet is already substantially lower. As someone who enjoys cooking and my food, salt is part of the game. I use regular salt during cooking to adjust the overall flavor and sometimes flavored finishing salts as a very light sprinkle before serving. Which type of salt is best? Read this article from Chris Kresser for a comprehensive answer.
Citrus Juice and Zest
Another option for adding a note of acidity or brightness to your food. Besides the obvious lemons and limes, you may want to experiment with others like grapefruit for savory foods (one of my favorite ceviche recipes uses grapefruit juice). If you’re throwing the zest out with the spent fruit rinds, though, you’re missing a gold mine of flavor! The outermost, colored layer of the skin (not the white pith underneath) contains the citrus oils that make the fruit so fragrant. I use a microplane grater to remove the zest and toss it in everything from dressings and marinades to desserts.
My favorites: lemons, limes and grapefruit
These form the backbone of your dish…the flavor foundation everything’s built on. Used in cooking from cultures around the world, they can be used as a dominant note (think garlic chicken) or as a subtle layer. I always have plenty of aromatics hanging around! The powdered / ground form is useful for some dishes (especially where you don’t want to introduce a lot of extra moisture) though I lean toward the fresh variety just because the flavor is so much more pronounced.
Fresh herbs are so great! Not only are they relatively inexpensive, it’s easy to grow your own no matter your space constraints, from pots on a balcony to huge backyard gardens. Heartier fresh herbs like rosemary hold up well to cooking (like in Rosemary Balsamic Butternut Squash) while more delicate leaves like cilantro do better in cold applications (because they’ll wilt otherwise). They’re great to sprinkle on top of a finished dish for another layer of flavor or to brighten up the colors on a plate.
My favorites: flat leaf parsley, mint and rosemary
Let me know what your flavor-making essentials are in the comments below!