Flavourings

Flavourings

By
Justin North
Contains
15 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740665377
Photographer
Steve Brown

As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to cooking (and eating!) this is where it all begins. It’s no mistake that the very first lesson drummed home to all apprentice chefs the world over is, ‘Taste what you’re cooking!’

Taste it again and again and again! And while all the senses play their part at the dinner table, when we think about food and eating, above all else it’s the flavour that interests us.

Yet this thing that we call flavour is complex and difficult to define. The broad-brush grouping of sweet, salty, sour and bitter is really only part of a much more complex story.

Intuitively, we think of flavour as being the way something tastes. In fact, two senses work together to help us determine the flavour of a foodstuff. Yes, people are often surprised to hear that our sense of smell plays almost as large a part in detecting flavour as our tongue. We are only able to detect the flavour of something as the result of a complex physiological reaction in our brain between these two senses.

But enough of the scientific stuff … now let’s talk philosophy! My whole approach to cooking is about maximising the natural flavours of the foods that we eat. It’s about purity and integrity, and not masking these natural flavours by dulling our tastebuds with too much fat or starch or confusing our palate by complicating things too much.

While some ingredients taste most intense and pure in their natural raw state, often some sort of action is needed to bring out the inherent flavour. It can be as simple as changing the temperature (by cooking) or by adding other ingredients – such as salt, herbs, spices, acids or alcohol.

Herbs

Herbs play a huge part in French cookery, and of course in all cuisines. They are the edible leaves and stalks of aromatic plants and each has its own unique flavour. Herbs can be used on their own or in combination, as in a bouquet garni, to add a magical depth of flavour to a dish.

They can be divided into two groups: hard and robust or soft and delicate. Hard herbs tend to have woody stalks and tougher leaves; think of rosemary, thyme or bay leaves. They can withstand excessive heat and prolonged cooking, and are often added early on in the cooking so that their flavours meld and infuse over time. Soft herbs, such as basil and mint or chives and chervil, are more fragile and tend to be added at the very end of the cooking time or used raw, as heat destroys their delicate flavour.

When choosing herbs, try to select ones that look fresh and vibrant – not limp and tired. They should smell fragrant and the colour should be vivid. Grow your own if you can – or buy living herbs that you can snip as required. Otherwise, buy them in small quantities, wrap them in a damp (not wet) cloth and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Soft herbs will keep well for up to 5 days and hard herbs will keep for up to 7 days if stored correctly.

Before preparing herbs it’s a good idea to give them a quick wash. Submerge them gently in a bowl or sink of water and swirl them around gently. Remove straight away and dry them on paper towels or in a salad spinner. Never wash herbs under running water as the pressure is enough to bruise and damage them.

Different herbs require different preparation, but generally the aromatic leaves need to be picked from the stalks, which are then discarded. Use your fingers or scissors to pick small sprigs, or for woody herbs, such as rosemary, strip the leaves off quickly by pulling against the direction of growth.

To chop herbs, gather together the leaves in a tight bundle and roll them up tightly. Use a very sharp knife to slice across the bundle – the resulting shreds are known as a chiffonnade, which is often used as a garnish. To chop more finely, gather the shreds together and chop across the pile in a rocking motion. With some of the more delicate herbs, such as chervil and basil, you need to be careful not to overchop as you run the risk of bruising them and losing their aroma.

I’m not a big fan of dried herbs – fresh ones are so readily available that frankly I just don’t see the point of using dried ones. At all costs avoid the little jars and packets that sit for months on supermarket shelves. If you want to dry your own, then tie them into small bunches and hang them in an airy spot for a few days until they are completely dry. Store in an airtight container and use within a few months while they are still fragrant. Use more sparingly than fresh herbs as the flavour tends to be more intense.

Herbes de Provence: This is a classic French combination of robust, savoury herbs, which is great to use in marinades for meats and grills. Herbes de Provence can also be added to stocks, braises and even kneaded into bread dough before baking.

This is hardly a recipe as such, but more an assembly of various herbs. Traditionally the mixture includes thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, basil and savoury (if savoury is not available it can simply be omitted), combined according to your own taste. Tie the herbs together to form a bundle, or strip the leaves and chop them together roughly.

Spices

Spices are often dry-roasted, which brings out their flavour even more. You can either roast them in the oven or in a dry frying pan.

Although spices don’t play such a starring role in French cookery as they do in some other cuisines (such as Asian or Middle Eastern, for instance), they do play an important part in marinades, brines and salt-cures, charcuterie, soups, sauces and pastries.

Whereas herbs are the leafy green parts of edible plants, spices are the other bits; generally speaking that means the intensely aromatic buds, berries, bark, roots, seeds and fruit. And while herbs are familiar, friendly kinds of plants that grow in most people’s back gardens, spices tend to come from far more exotic and far-flung lands.

Spices are used in the same way as herbs, to heighten and enliven the flavour of a dish. But you do need to be a bit careful not to overuse them – you don’t want to overpower the underlying ingredients, but rather to complement and enhance them. As a general principle I advise you to err on the side of caution – add less rather than more to start off with, after all you can always add more later on.

For maximum freshness, always purchase spices from a specialty food shop or spice retailer. To maintain flavour and aroma, store spices in an airtight container in a cool dry place. And only buy spices in small quantities; they will lose their aroma and flavour if they sit in your cupboard for years on end!

Spices can be used whole or ground, depending on the dish. Add a whole cinnamon stick or a few whole cloves to a stock syrup for instance – these can be fished out after cooking, whereas ground cinnamon or cloves would ruin the clarity of the syrup. But if you want to use spices in marinades, rubs, casseroles or in cakes or biscuits they need to be ground to a fine powder so they mix in readily with the other ingredients.

To grind spices, use a mortar and pestle or an electric spice or coffee grinder. With the latter though, be careful not to overgrind the spices, which will burn the essential oils and alter the flavour.

Spices are often dry-roasted, which brings out their flavour even more. You can either roast them in the oven or in a dry frying pan. Spread them out in an even layer and roast for a few minutes until they start to colour and become intensely fragrant. You’ll need to keep the pan moving so they don’t burn.

Quatre épices: This is a classic French spice mixture of 4 spices – allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves – that is used in baking cakes, biscuits and desserts. Usually the ratio is 7 parts allspice to 1 part each of the other spices. The allspice, cinnamon and cloves are roughly pounded in a mortar, and the nutmeg grated. I then whiz everything to a powder in a spice or coffee grinder.

Salt

Salt is as fundamental to French cooking as it is to all cuisines. It is not only an essential mineral that the human body requires (although not to excess), but it acts as an important trigger to the production of saliva in our mouth and the gastric juices in our stomach. It is, if you like, the ultimate flavour enhancer.

As well as being used as a seasoning to heighten the flavour of other foods, the other main use of salt is as a food preserver. Traditionally salt has been used to dry- or wet-cure, or to pickle perishable foodstuffs in a brine solution. Since the advent of freezing and refrigeration, however, the necessity for this method of preserving has all but disappeared.

Whereas herbs and spices introduce new and different flavours to a dish, salt, when used properly, should be neutral. Poor quality mass-produced salts may have chemicals added to keep them free-flowing, but these will definitely impact on the flavour of your final dish. Wherever possible, try to use unrefined salts with no added chemicals.

I use two different kinds of salt in my kitchen: fine cooking salt that I use to cook with, and salt flakes or crystals that I use to season at the end of cooking and as a condiment on the dinner table. Good-quality salts such as Maldon sea salt and fleur de sel (wet salt) from Brittany are both readily available. All salts should be stored in an airtight container in a cool dry place.

Finally, if you are using ingredients such as olives, anchovies, capers or botaga roe, don’t forget that these are naturally salty (and extra salt is used in their production) so you will not need to add much – if any – more salt to the dish.

Alcohol and vinegar solutions

Wine is splashed around with great abandon in the French kitchen, and spirits and liqueurs are often used at the end of cooking to add a final flavour and lift to a sauce, soup or stew.

Similarly, I like to use vinegar – especially wine-based vinegars – to add a sharp, acid note to all kinds of dressings, sauces and casseroles.

There are a few things to keep in mind, though. Firstly, there are obviously many differences between red and white wines – so use the appropriate wine for each dish, as directed in the recipe. Secondly, alcohol shouldn’t be used ‘raw’ in a dish as it is far too overpowering – and this is especially true if you’re using wines that are less than top-notch! Usually the alcohol will be evaporated off as you cook it, leaving the wine flavour behind. But the more you cook it, the more concentrated and acidic the flavours will become; always exercise caution and taste continuously. Often, a few minutes’ vigorous simmering will be sufficient to burn off the alcohol and still maintain the freshness of flavour.

When it comes to distilled spirits or liqueurs, though, it’s a different story and they should only be used raw – or very briefly boiled or flamed – as the flavours are far more volatile and delicate. The impact they make can be stunning. Think about adding a splash of Armagnac or rum to a sweet custard or pastry cream or a drop of cognac to a velvety seafood bisque.

Similarly, sweet and fortified wines such as a sauterne, port, Madeira or sherry should only really be added towards the end of the cooking time – or only given the briefest simmer – so as not to destroy their wonderful sweet intensity of flavour.

When it comes to vinegar, I use the whole gamut, from pricy ‘boutique’ vinegars made from cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay or champagne to more generic white or red wine vinegars, sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar. Remember that vinegar also becomes much more intense and acidic when it’s simmered and reduced. So once again, be guided by the way it’s being used in the dish.

Sweet flavourings

In French cooking, sweet flavourings tend to be used mainly in desserts and the most common sweet additions are sugar, natural fruit sugars and honey, and spices with sweet undertones, such as vanilla, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.

I love to use sugar as a medium to carry other flavours (in the same way as I use salt in savoury dishes). So, for instance, I’ll infuse a jar of sugar with a vanilla pod or a few strips of orange, lemon or lime peel, or I’ll add a splash of sherry vinegar or a grating of lime zest to a caramel.

Sugar can also be used as a flavour enhancer – that is to bring out the natural sweet flavours of other ingredients. People often add a teaspoon of sugar to a homemade tomato sauce, for example, or a pinch of sugar to baby peas or carrots.

Tea

Although tea has been around for centuries as a hot refreshing drink, using it in other culinary applications has only started to become fashionable in French cooking fairly recently.

I’m delighted that tea is being used more widely because I love the light delicate flavours that different varieties of tea add to different types of food. The use of herbal infusions is fairly obvious, of course, but think of the elegant, citrus notes of Earl Grey tea, for instance, which perfectly complement a delicate tomato essence. Or imagine the way a more robust Marco Polo tea will enhance an earthy, lemongrass-infused dressing.

Although you might be unfamiliar with the idea of using tea as a ‘flavour’, I do encourage you to try it. As is always the case with cooking, you need to think about the aroma and flavour and try to imagine how it will interact with other component parts of the dish. Why not have a bit of fun in the kitchen?

As is the case with spices, always purchase your tea from a reputable specialty tea shop to ensure a tea with integrity and freshness. Store tea leaves in airtight jars in a cool dry place.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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