There are a variety of ways to enhance the flavor of meat, fish, chicken, pork, and vegetables. First and foremost is salt—just using this one ingredient will bring out the flavor of any dish. Herbs and spices add a world of flavor to food, particularly when blended together. Liquid marinades are also a way to infuse food with flavor before the cooking process.
Long valued for its ability to preserve and cure food, salt has been used in food preparation for centuries. Salt is a mineral that is obtained from two different sources—mined from underground salt deposits or evaporated from seawater. Salt keeps indefinitely, although it will absorb moisture from the atmosphere, which could prevent it from flowing properly. There are several types of salt, each used for different purposes.
Table salt has a fine texture. It is made by pumping water through underground salt deposits and then evaporating the water. Chemicals are added to prevent it from clumping. Iodine, an important nutrient, is also added, mainly as a health benefit to consumers.
Kosher salt has large, irregular crystals and contains no iodine or additives. It is used in the “koshering” or curing of meat. It can be used as a substitute for common kitchen salt, although it is not recommended for baking. Because of the larger crystals, less salt is necessary.
Sea salt is made from evaporating sea water and then purifying the crystals. There are many brands of sea salt with distinctive origins, such as Himalayan and Celtic, in the marketplace today.
Rock salt, mined from underground deposits, is available in both edible and nonedible forms. It is typically used for home freezing purposes, such as making ice cream.
Too much salt consumption can cause health issues. The amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for daily consumption is approximately 1 teaspoon of salt. Many prepared foods already contain a lot of salt. When cooking with salt, follow these guidelines:
- Add salt at the end of the cooking process.
- Avoid using herb salts such as garlic salt; use garlic powder instead.
- Refrain from salting cooking water for pasta and vegetables.
- Salt meats after cooking them, as it can dry out the meat.
Herbs are leaves or aromatic plants; leaves, stems and flowers are used to add flavor to foods. Most herbs are available fresh or dried.
Fresh herbs: Sprinkling chopped fresh herbs over a finished dish not only adds flavor, but color and texture as well. A sprig of the herb also makes a festive garnish. Fresh herbs add a more distinct flavor than dried herbs, and for some dishes such as bruschetta or guacamole, only fresh herbs should be used.
When purchasing fresh herbs, choose those with leaves and stems that are not wilted and don’t have brown spots or pest damage. They should also be aromatic. Fresh herbs only last for a short period of time.
When cutting fresh herbs from a plant or from the garden, it is best to use them within a short time after cutting them. Fresh herbs should be added to a dish at the end of the cooking time. The herbs listed below are most commonly used fresh.
Parsley is one of the most frequently used herbs. Curly parsley has small, bright green curly leaves and a tangy flavor. It is also used frequently as a garnish. Italian parsley has flat leaves, a darker color and a stronger flavor. Both can be used to flavor any savory dish.
Basil is used frequently in Mediterranean cooking and in particular, to make pesto sauce. The most common variety is sweet basil, which pairs well with tomatoes and garlic. It has light green, tender leaves and a sweet, slightly peppery flavor with a hint of cloves. Store fresh basil at room temperature.
Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, is sharp and tangy with a strong aroma and a citrus-like flavor. It is used in Mexican, Asian and South American dishes. Coriander seeds also come from this plant but, they have a different flavor and cannot be used as a substitute for cilantro.
Dill, a member of the parsley family, has delicate, feathery leaves with a slight anise or licorice flavor. It is commonly used in Scandinavian and central European cooking, particularly with fish and potatoes.
Chives are a member of the onion family. They have hollow, thin grass-green stems, and deliver a more mild onion flavor while adding a bright green color to egg dishes, poultry, potatoes and seafood.
Rosemary is an evergreen bush that grows wild in warm climates worldwide. It’s stiff, needle-like leaves are highly aromatic with a sweet piney odor. It is best used fresh to add flavor to beef, pork, lamb, chicken and root vegetable dishes.
Tarragon has long, narrow dark leaves and a strong, almost licorice flavor. It is used in many French sauces, such as béarnaise, and pairs well with fish.
Dried herbs: The flavor intensity increases with dried herbs but, it does take longer for the flavor to infuse a dish. Therefore, dried herbs are added at the beginning of the cooking process. If you are substituting dried herbs for fresh herbs, use about one third the amount called for. The shelf-life of dried herbs is about 6 months, so it is a good idea to replace them at least once a year. The following are commonly used dried herbs.
Bay leaves are leaves from the bay or laurel tree grown in Asia. The tough, glossy leaves have a peppery flavor and are used to add flavor to sauces and soups. The whole, dried leaves are added to a dish and removed at the end of cooking.
Oregano, or wild marjoram, is a pungent, peppery herb used in Mediterranean cooking. It has a thin woody stalk with clumps of tiny, dark green leaves. It is available dried in larger flakes or ground.
Sage has narrow, fuzzy, gray-green leaves. Its strong balsamic flavor is best used with poultry dishes. It is available whole, chopped or rubbed (coarsely ground).
Thyme is a small, bushy plant with woody stems, tiny green-gray leaves. It has a warm, slightly pungent flavor and complements all types of meat, poultry, fish and vegetable dishes. It is available dried in larger flakes or ground.
Spices are aromatics produced primarily from the bark and seeds of plants. They have long been used as flavor additives for savory and sweet applications. Spices are primarily used in their dried form and are available whole or ground. Whole spices add a stronger flavor and can be ground using a mortar and pestle or with an electric spice grinder. The shelf-life of ground spices is about 1 year, so it is a good idea to replace them once a year. The following are commonly used spices.
Cinnamon, the oldest known spice, is from the bark of small evergreen trees. Used mostly in pastries and sweets, it is available in sticks, as well as ground.
Cloves are the unopened buds of evergreen trees. Dried cloves have sharp prongs which can be used to push them into foods to infuse them with a sweet, pungent flavor.
Cumin, available whole and ground, has a strong earthy flavor and is used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Hispanic cuisines.
Ginger is obtained from the root of a tropical plant and has a fiery but sweet flavor. Fresh ginger root looks like a “hand” and is used in Indian and Asian cuisines. It is also available peeled and pickled, candied in sugar or preserved in alcohol. Dried, ground ginger is a fine yellow powder with a spicier flavor than fresh ginger.
Mustard seeds are a standard component of pickling spices and are used to create prepared mustard. It is also available ground or dry.
Nutmeg and mace come from the fruit of a large tropical evergreen. Whole nutmegs are oval and look wooden-like. The flavor and aroma is strong and sweet, particularly when fresh nutmeg is grated. Also available ground.
Paprika is ground from dried chilies and has a flavor ranging from sweet to pungent. It is used in many Spanish and eastern European dishes.
Pepper comes from berries grown on the vine plant native to tropical Asia. Peppercorns vary in size, color, pungency and flavor. Whole peppercorns will retain their flavor almost indefinitely. They must be crushed or ground in a peppermill in order for the flavor to be released. Common forms are black, green, pink, and white peppercorns. Black and white pepper is also available ground.
Herb and Spice Blends
Today there are a multitude of herb and spice blends readily available in the retail market. Some of them are as simple as two ingredients, such as lemon pepper, while others are a blend of many ingredients. The following are a few of the most common blends:
Blackening seasoning is a Southern or Cajun seasoning used to add spice to meat, poultry or fish. It consists of black and cayenne peppers, garlic, oregano, thyme, paprika, and salt.
Chili powder is used for seasoning chili or other stews. It is a blend of allspice, cayenne pepper, chili pepper, cumin seed, garlic, oregano and salt.
Curry powder, with its origins in Southeast Asia, is a blend of black and cayenne peppers, cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, cumin, fennel seed, sesame, saffron, and turmeric used to flavor sauces.
Herbs de Provençe includes savory, fennel, basil, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, chervil, tarragon, marjoram, and mint. It is a French seasoning blend used for meats and stews.
Old Bay Seasoning is used to flavor fish and seafood dishes. It is a blend of ground bay leaves, celery salt, dry mustard, black pepper, paprika, celery seeds, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cloves, red pepper flakes, and white pepper.
Rubs usually refer to dry seasoning blends that are massaged into a piece of meat to add flavor. Rubs usually include salt, pepper, and a variety of dried herbs and spices. It’s easy to create blends of your own. Use the following recipe to make your own rub:
Spicy Southwestern Rub Recipe
- 3 teaspoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander, ground
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients together. Rub into beef, chicken or pork before you grill or bake it.
Marinating is the process of soaking meat in a seasoned liquid to flavor and tenderize it. Common ingredients in marinades are oils, herbs, seasonings, and wine. The length of time suggested for marinating depends on the type of protein.
Beef: 4-8 hours
Pork: 3-4 hours
Chicken: 1-2 hours
Seafood: 1 hour
Marinate foods in the refrigerator, turning at least once for even distribution. Discard marinades after use.
Oils are refined from various seeds, plants and vegetables. They are manufactured for specific purposes such as deep-frying, baking, cooking and making dressings. When cooking with oils, it is important to know their smoke point, which is the temperature at which they break down and begin to "smoke".
Vegetable oils are derived from plants, such as corn, cottonseed, peanuts and soybeans. They have a neutral flavor, contain no animal products and are cholesterol-free.
Canola oil is processed from rapeseeds. With its high smoke point and lack of flavor, canola oil is useful for deep-frying.
Nut oils, such as walnut or hazelnut, are pure oils because they are never blended. These flavorful oils are used for marinades and dressings.
Olive oil is extracted from a fruit—the olive—from a tree native to the Mediterranean. Olive oil varies in color and flavor—which is a matter of personal preference. The label designation of extra virgin, virgin and pure, refers to the acidity of the oil and the amount of processing used to extract the oil. The first pressing of the olives results in virgin oil. Extra virgin oil has less acidity. Pure olive oil is made after the first pressing. It is lighter in flavor and less expensive than virgin oil.
Infused oils, typically olive oils, have added flavorings such as herbs, chilies, garlic and citrus.
Vinegars are made by fermenting wine or other liquids. They should be clear and clean looking, never cloudy or muddy. Any sediment that develops can be strained out. Discard any vinegar that is moldy.
Wine vinegar can be made from white or red wine, sherry or champagne. Their flavor matches the wine used.
Balsamic vinegar is red wine vinegar which has been aged in wooden barrels for at least 4 years and up to 20 years. The resulting vinegar is dark brown and sweet.
Distilled vinegar, made from grain alcohol, has a strong flavor and is used for preserving and pickling.
Cider vinegar, made from apple juice, is pale brown and has a fruity flavor.
Rice vinegar, brewed from rice wine, is slightly sweet and used predominantly in Asian cooking.
Flavored vinegars have been infused with flavors from herbs, spices and fruits.
Wine used in cooking should be the same wine that you drink, but perhaps not the most expensive wine. Therefore avoid using "cooking wine".
Marinade recipes: While there are many ready-to-use marinades available, you can control the salt content and overall flavors by making your own. Use the following recipes to make your own marinades:
Asian Garlic Marinade Recipe
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all of the ingredients together. Marinate beef, pork or chicken for 30-60 minutes. Discard marinade after using. Makes 2 cups.
Citrus Seafood Marinade
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup lime juice
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
- 2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon jalapeño, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all of the ingredients together. Marinate fish and seafood for 30 minutes before cooking. Discard marinade after using. Makes 2 cups.