The Confident Kitchen Series
Are you familiar with the word tweaking? The term “tweaking” is sometimes used in technological communication, but chefs have used the expression as part of their kitchen terminology for years to describe the path they take to perfect flavours. This is called a Tweaking: A Study in Flavour Amendment.
During a recent cooking class, one of the students asked the question, “What do I do to flavour my food if it needs a little ‘something-something’? I don’t know where to start to fix it and what would I use to fix it?” The other students joined the conversation by asking, “what do I do if my dish is too salty, too sweet, or ends up being too bland?”
The focus of this article is to address these questions in a number of practical ways; for example, the proper use of seasonings such as salt and pepper and more sophisticated ones such as smoked paprika or reductions. I will discuss how to “tweak” a dish until it is pleasing to your taste.
The three most important steps in developing flavours are:
- taste and then,
- taste again”.
This process is often ignored until the dish is finished and on the table. In professional kitchens, the tasting ritual is encouraged by having containers of fresh spoons available for the cooks and executive chef for continual tastings while food is being prepared. It is an important element in cooking and one that is stressed in good kitchens.
My husband is the tweaker in our family. He has the refined palate of a ‘saucier’ – one of the most important and coveted roles in a professional kitchen. When tasting, they can readily identify what the dish needs in order to balance the flavours. They understand what sour, sweet, or acidic addition would correct, enhance or brighten the flavour of a dish. If the balances of sour, sweet and acid in the dish are not in harmony, it is difficult to bring the flavours of the dish together.
TWEAKING – A STUDY IN FLAVOUR AMENDMENT
There are strategies to ensure that flavours of your food can be improved.
1. Layer Your Seasoning: in the recipe where the dish that requires different stages of cooking (for example, browning meat, sautéing vegetables, adding liquids), remember to season each ‘layer’ separately as you cook them.
2. Over Seasoning: Remember that some ingredients have seasonings added, so be cautious not to over-season when adding these to your dish (for example; store-bought chicken or beef stocks; or canned tomatoes).
3. Under Seasoning: Remember that a few grinds of a pepper mill and a pinch of salt is not going to be effective when you are dealing with several pounds of meat or vegetables. To check the seasoning of a raw ingredient mixture (for example, meatloaf or meatballs), make a tiny meat patty (one inch flat patty), cook it and taste it. Adjust the seasonings as necessary. Repeat the testing process until it is just right.
4. Too Much Salt? If a dish has too much salt, try adding a couple of pinches of sugar plus a little acid in the form of lemon or lime juice or vinegar. Add these in small amounts and taste continually until it is to your liking.
5. Too Much Sugar? On the other side of the scale; if your dish is too sweet, you can counteract this by adding a pinch of salt and a little lemon juice.
6. Too Sharp? Sometimes tomato dishes can taste too sharp, particularly if tomato paste has been used. Add a little sugar to balance the sharpness. Furthermore, tomato paste should be ‘cooked’ to reduce the sharpness which is due to the acidic nature of the paste. This is usually done in the first few steps (for example, when cooking vegetables or searing beef for a stew). The paste is added to the fat in the pan before any liquid is added and cooked out until it starts to turn a darker (caramelized) colour.
7. Too Sour? If a dish is too sour (for example; braised cabbage or hot and sour soup), you can tweak it by adding small pinches of salt and sugar until the correct balance is achieved.
8. Reductions: A reduction is simply reducing the liquid in a dish or sauce by half or more and then, rechecking the seasoning. If your dish is a braised item like a stew, transfer the meat and vegetables (keep these warm) from the liquid and reduce the liquid. Often, after a reduction, the seasoning that was initially used has been concentrated enough that only a small adjustment is necessary.
9. Vanilla: It is important to note that vanilla is used to enhance the flavours of sweet dishes just as salt is used in savoury dishes. I often use a little dribble of vanilla bean paste in a bowl of fresh strawberries. Sugar is not necessary for this delectable treat.
10. Flavour Enhancements: Too Bland? If a dish is too bland? The remedies are endless. I have an arsenal of culinary tricks that I use to tweak my dishes. Try using different flavour boosters to improve your dish (even if the recipe does not list it) such as: roasted garlic, caramelized onion, Dijon mustard, vinegars (check out flavoured vinegars); hot sauces, fish sauce, preserved lemon; Worcestershire; wine (one that you would enjoy drinking); brandy, liqueurs or extracts (used often in desserts); lemon juice or zest; smoked paprika, vegetable powders such as onion or garlic powder; seasoning blends; fresh or dried herbs; aromatic vegetables such as carrots, onions and celery (the mirepoix of French cooking), etc.
11. Roasting vegetables or fruits: yes, roasting fruit! The difference in the flavour of a vegetable or fruit that has been roasted is unbelievable. The recipe below shows a simple salsa made from roasted strawberries. Serve on top of a grilled boneless chicken breast for a light and delicious dinner paired with a glass of white Zinfandel.
12. Spicy Heat: Heat compliments a food and should never overpower. Flavour is the combination of a number of ingredients, not just heat.
In summary, it is your turn to try some of the flavour boosting tweaking ideas. Don’t forget to taste, taste, and then, taste again; even if it means that you have to buy a few extra teaspoons. It will help you build your ‘tweaking’ capabilities and in turn, build confidence in the kitchen.
Let’s practice our skills in Flavour Amendment by making Roasted Strawberry Salsa on Grilled Chicken Breast. Happy tweaking!
Roasted Strawberry Salsa on Grilled Chicken Breast
- 2 cups fresh strawberries (1/4 inch dice)
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into small dice
- ½ vanilla pod or cinnamon stick (or both)
- 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
- Fresh Basil, as required, cut into very fine shreds
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon finely sliced chives or green onions, optional
- Preheat your oven to 350oF/180oC (325oF if using a convection oven)
- On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, place the diced strawberries.
- Toss lightly with the brown sugar, butter, and vanilla pod or cinnamon stick.
- Roast in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to gently coat the ingredients. The strawberries will turn a darker shade of red and the juices will become viscous (thick & caramelized).
- Remove the pan from the oven and add the white balsamic vinegar and chiffonade of basil. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (black pepper and strawberries are a magical flavour pairing).
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Happy Tweaking, everyone!
The Urbnspice Chef
If you have found these tips and techniques from this Tweaking – A Study in Flavour Amendment article helpful, please leave me a comment below with your feedback.
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