Flavor-Boosting Tricks Add Spark to Healthy Cooking

Chefs share their tips for boosting flavor and nutrition.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

You know it when you taste it, but just what is it that distinguishes a great dish from an ordinary one?

Culinary experts say that chefs and cooks who understand how to develop layers of flavors, through food combinations and cooking techniques, get the best results. These simple techniques are great for boosting the flavor of lower-calorie dishes, which can make them seem more satisfying. Some may also help to maximize health benefits by improving nutrient absorption.

Sound too good to be true? Read on to learn the secrets of the new culinary masters.

The Art of Flavor Layering

A new generation of food science has emerged that slashes sodium, trims calories, and increases nutrient absorption.

"We have a greater understanding of how to layer and use flavors, cooking techniques, and the art of combining foods to create fabulous, healthy cuisine that is richer in nutrients," says Connie Guttersen, PhD, RD, author of The Sonoma Diet.

Layering flavors involves cooking techniques that add depth of flavor. Each step of the cooking process is important -- skip a crucial step and you can't add back the missed flavor.

These flavor-enhancing techniques include:

  • Browning, which adds flavor to everything from coffee beans to baked goods and meat. One type of browning is searing, which is heating meat or fish on high heat to lock in juices and flavor and develop a crust on the outside. The dish is often then finished in the oven. Guttersen likes to rub meats with spice rubs before searing for a truly flavorful crust.
  • Carmelizing, which is another type of browning process that brings out the natural sweetness in foods, and intensifies flavors and aromas. If a recipe calls for sauteed onions, "always cook them over medium heat until the onions take on a golden color," says Guttersen. "That will add a tremendous flavor to the dish."
  • Roasting meats, vegetables, and fruits, yet another way to bring out their natural goodness. "Pour off the fat and save those browned bits in the bottom of the roasting pan. This is where the real flavor is," says Kyle Shadix, MS, RD, CCC, a chef and dietitian who is president of Nutrition and Culinary Consultants Inc. He suggests using a liquid to dissolve the bits (a process called deglazing). Toss in some fresh herbs, and you have a light and delicious sauce.
  • Poaching in white wine or chicken stock, flavored with a little citrus and herbs or coriander, which is a wonderful way to cook delicate fish, salmon, or chicken. Reduce the liquid (that is, cook it until it is reduced in volume) for a tasty sauce.
  • Toasting, yet another variation of browning that brings out flavor, especially in nuts, whole spices, and grains. Toasting releases natural oils and brings out incredible flavors. Toast ingredients before you use them in cooking -- this is an example of a step that cannot be added back after the cooking process has begun.
  • Slow cooking. "Most people cook everything on high heat, too quickly, and destroy potential flavors," Shadix says. Unless you're searing meat or boiling water, he suggests you turn down the dial and cook most of your food at lower temperatures.
  • Using (a little) real butter. Shadix trained at the Cordon Bleu in France, where they use lots of butter because "it has more flavor than canola or olive oil and when you heat it, the flavor gets better," he says. Fat adds a wonderful layer of flavor, and as long as you use it sparingly and pour off or skim any extra, it has a place in healthy cuisine.

Smart Combinations

The other part of the flavor-boosting equation is using ingredients that complement one another.

Combining certain foods not only deepens flavor but can also increase the nutrients your body absorbs from the foods. Foods contain thousands of substances that perform functions in the body, such as vitamins and phytochemicals. In some cases, certain substances, when eaten together, produce a greater effect than when each is eaten alone.

For example, it's a good idea from both a nutrition and taste standpoint to eat dark leafy greens with a little healthy fat. Many people find dark leafy greens bitter, but if you combine them with some fat, acid and heat, the flavor becomes rich and mellow.

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