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22 October 2007

Developing flavour in home cooking

There is more to good home cooking than following a recipe. To consistently cook well, you need to understand how flavours develop. There are ways of developing flavour in your home cooking that don't involve adding anything from a packet or opening a can of soup.

The best way to add flavour to meat is to caramelise it. Many foods have natural sugars in them. They don't make that food sweet but they are there nonetheless. When you cook meat on a high heat it turns brown. That is caramelisation. It is the sugars in the meat browning because of the heat - it changes the colour of the meat to brown and it intensifies the flavour by removing water from the meat's sugars and concentrating the flavour in the meat.

You should add a small amount of oil - I always use olive oil - to your pan, heat the oil so it's quite hot and add the meat. Don't add too much meat at a time, if you have a large amount to cook, add it in batches and brown the meat a bit at a time. This allows the meat to caramelise. If you add too much meat at once, the juices from the meat will release and it will stew instead of dry fry. You're trying to remove the water from the sugars in the meat and if you stew the meat at this point, it won't caramelise. Once you've browned all the meat, you can carry on with your cooking, knowing that you've added much more natural flavour than you would have had if you'd just cooked the meat in a sauce.

You can develop flavour by caramelisation in any food that contains natural sugars like meat, vegetables, fruit and fish.

You can use cheap cuts of beef for this recipe like shin or flank. Even though those cuts might contain sinew, the slow cooking will melt them and you'll end up with tender cubes of meat that almost fall apart.
  1. Chop beef into cubes and coat it with some plain (all purpose) flour, salt, pepper and a teaspoon of paprika, all mixed together. Dry fry in a bit of oil, in small portions, until all the meat is brown. It's not cooked at this point, just brown on the outside. Put the meat aside on a plate.
  2. Add one chopped onion - another way of adding flavour to food. Even if you don't like the taste of raw onion, it should be added to food because it will add a depth of flavour you won't get without it. Fry the onion until it too is a light brown colour. When it's light brown, that means you've also caramelised the sugars in the onion - and therefore developed its flavour.
  3. Chop up two carrots and two sticks of celery. Again, you don't have to like the flavour of these foods as they won't taste like they taste fresh, but they'll add flavour to your dish. Cook these vegetables until the celery has turned bright green.
  4. Add pinch of salt and pepper and stir. It's much better to add small amounts of salt and pepper throughout this type of cooking, instead of once large amount at the end. Adding small amounts at the various stages will add layers of flavour instead of just adding seasoning.
  5. At this point you could add a variety of other flavours - such as chilli, tomato, paprika, curry etc - or you could leave them out and go on to the next step. If you so add an extra flavour, add it, stir it in and make sure it's well incorporated into the other ingredients before going on.
  6. Add the meat back to the pot and pour in some stock or water, enough to just cover the meat, a small amount of salt and pepper, stir again, bring to the boil and stir again. Place the lid on the pot and put it in the oven to slowly cook (150C) for about 2 hours.
When it's cooked, taste for flavour. At this point the meat will be tender and there will be a thick sauce covering the meat. Serve with mashed potato and green beans.

Spices are the flowers, bark, roots, berries or seeds of various plants used to develop flavour in cooking. Spices are usually dried to a powdered form and added in small amounts. When you add spice to your cooking, you will release more flavour if you dry fry them in a pan before use. When you buy spice, only buy small amounts as they lose flavour when stored for a long time. Store your spice in a cool dark place in a sealed jar.

Spices are often used in long slow cooking - such as curry, or sprinkled on the top of food to add a quick burst of flavour, such as pepper.

Spices are things like pepper, chilli powder, cardamon, coriander seeds, paprika, and many many more.

Herbs are similar to spices but they're usually fresh. The actual definition of a herb in cooking is any plant that is useful and adds flavour.

Herbs are parsley, chives, sage, oregano, thyme etc.

When you add herbs to a recipe, you can add them at the beginning for slow cooking and that will develop and add flavour while cooking, but you can also add them at the end of cooking to add freshness to the dish. For instance, you might add garlic, parsley, oregano and thyme to a spaghetti sauce recipe - cook it for a while, then add more parsley at the end so the meal is served with green parsley to give it a fresh taste.

Sugar or honey can be added in very small amounts to bring out the flavour in certain foods. For instance, half a teaspoon of sugar in a tomato dish - such as pasta sauce, will make the tomato flavour more intense. A small amount (½ teaspoon) of sugar added to frying onions, while help them caramelise. Cooking onions like this needs to be done slowly.

You can add flavour by evaporating the water out of food by simmering with the lid off the pot. This will concentrate the flavour in the dish.

You can also add flavour to raw food. Salads are usually raw vegetables and fruits combined in various ways. You can add flavour by making a simple dressing.

Three parts extra virgin olive oil to one part of vinegar or lemon juice. You can also add a small amount of salt and pepper, a teaspoon of mustard powder, a little sugar, or a dash of cream for a richer dressing, or some water for a lighter one. Try variations of this until you find what suits your taste. You make it by adding all the ingredients to a small jar and shaking it. Dress the salad just before serving.

Eggs MUST be at room temperature.
  1. Whisk together two fresh egg yolks, salt, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 2 teaspoons of good vinegar in a roomy bowl.
  2. Add two cups of good olive oil very slowly - start whisking the yolk mixture and let the oil fall from the spout, drop by drop in a thin stream until you have achieved a thick, velvety mayonnaise. You must whisk all the time, or use an electric beater. When the mixture thickens up, you may add the rest of the oil faster.
  3. Taste it. Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste.
Make good stock whenever you have the bones of chicken or beef or if you have spare vegetables. You can cook the bones with the vegetables in water and that will make stock. However, if you roast the bones in the oven for an hour, you'll caramelise the flavours and make better stock. So to make stock, roast the bones for an hour, add the roasted bones to a stockpot and cover with water. Add bay leaves, salt and pepper, a chopped onion, two sticks chopped celery and a chopped carrot. Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour with the lid on. When it's cold, it can be frozen or stored in the fridge.

So as you can see, all these techniques involve good wholesome food, with no artificial flavours. Home cooking relies of developing natural flavours and that is easily done using the techniques above or by adding natural flavour like spice or herbs. And don't be afraid to experiment. Start off with a good basic dish that you find appealing and modify it by adding the flavours - to a greater or lesser degree, that your family likes. Once you've mastered that skill, you're on your way to being a good home cook.


  1. Great advie Rhonda...I already cook this way due to my son's reactions to preservatives and "numbers" in the commercially prepared equivalents. As you know most of the recipes on my blog are make it form scratch ones :)I have never tried roasting the chicken bones prior to making my stock, so on your advice I will try it next time. Thanks again for the great advice.

  2. Hi Rhonda Jesn :) I gleaned some goodies from this post - thanks so much!

    I am making my own chicken stock/broth these days - that is a new adventure for me - and have found a wonderful, delicious recipe. Next time I do this, I will try your suggestion of roasting th bones to see if I can make it even better ;) Love, Q

  3. I wondered why I was roasting the chicken bones. It's the way my mom taught me, but it's nice to know why. I just do as I'm told...thirty-five years ago...;)

  4. Mmm... this makes me want to go and cook something yummy now! :)

  5. Did not know that about the bone-roasting!

    Past practice. We have chickens and after culling and cleaning one, I divide it into enough pieces to put into the crockpot with the organ meats, some chopped home-grown potatoes and onions, a garlic clove, a "bay" leaf (Oregon myrtle), some salt and pepper, cover all with water, and set on high, overnight. In the morning the meat slips right off the bones for freezing, and the remaining stock is frozen separately for use as soup base all winter.

    Would the bones then be roasted for making yet more (and better tasting) stock, or am I, as I have been assuming, pretty much done with them?

    risa b


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