Have you ever eaten a delicious, mouth-watering meal prepared by a friend, asked them for the recipe, and then discovered, to your dismay, that your version simply doesn’t taste the same? What happened?! What mysterious recipe secrets did your friend leave out?! We’ll assume, for a moment, that your friend actually did follow the recipe. We’ll also assume, because they love you, that they aren’t trying to sabotage your meal by giving you a faux-recipe, and did not leave out their top-secret ingredient. What could have happened? Today we’ll look at a few easy ways to make your food taste better.
1. Salt Your Pasta Water
That’s right– pasta needs salt. Pasta won’t absorb salt once it’s finished cooking, so the only chance to season it is while it’s in the boiling water. How much salt? Serious Eats recommends about 1 1/2 tsp of table salt per liter (If you’re math challenged like me– 1 liter is about 4 cups). If your eyes are widening in concern, and you persistently monitor your sodium intake, keep in mind that most of the salt will get tossed out with the water.
2. Spices and herbs really do expire
I know, I know.. you bought cinnamon sticks back in 2010, stuck them in the back of your pantry, intending to use them the next time you made hot chocolate. You forgot about them, and every time you clean out your pantry, you think, “I really need to use those!” I have bad news– they’ve probably lost most of their flavor. Unless they’ve molded, or you notice an odd smell, those cinnamon sticks are probably safe to use, but they won’t be very effective in flavoring your food. On average, whole spices last the longest (about 4 years), then ground spices (2-3 years), and finally dried herbs have the shortest shelf life (1-3 years). Check out Still Tasty for spice and herb storage advice and their “Keep It or Toss It” chart.
3. Not all spices and herbs are created equal
If you’ve never tried grinding your own spices– the very idea might seem a little crazy. Yes, you can buy your spices pre-ground, and save yourself some work. If you’re buying your spices pre-ground, check the ingredients on the bottle and avoid anything that has fillers added. However, freshly ground spices have more flavor. This is more important for some dishes than others (Indian food just screams for freshly ground spices). If you want to take the plunge and buy whole spices, you can grind them with either a spice grinder or a cheap coffee grinder (just don’t try to use it for coffee again). Personally, I like to have a mix of pre-ground and whole spices. Try to get your spices and dried herbs at spice markets (if there are any near you), or at Asian or Middle Eastern grocery stores. Chances are, the spices will be fresher, and they’ll definitely be cheaper. Serious Eats has more tips on getting the most out of your spices. For the freshest of the fresh herbs, try growing your own. I grow my herbs in glass jars in my kitchen windowsill, and pick as needed.
4. Stop Buying pre-shredded Cheese
I know, pre-shredded cheese saves prep-time. You know what it doesn’t save? Money, flavor, shelf life, or cook-time. Pre-shredded cheese typically costs more per ounce than a block, wedge, or ball of the same cheese (I don’t need to prove this for you with sources– look for yourself next time you’re at the store). My biggest complaint, however, is not cost. My biggest complaint is taste. If you normally buy pre-shredded cheese– do a taste test experiment. Buy the same cheese you normally would in both a block and a pre-shredded bag, shred some of the block yourself, and taste compare. Not only will the flavor be better (indescribably better), but the texture will also be better. Additionally, pre-shredding the cheese decreases the shelf life (check your expiration dates), because there’s more surface area exposed to oxygen (and then mold). Finally, and most disturbingly, to keep the cheese from going bad, make it seem creamier than it is, and stop it from clumping together, pre-shredded cheese is covered in cellulose and other food additives. These additives can also make it harder for your cheese to melt, increasing your cook-time.
5. Don’t throw away parmesan rinds
You’ve now stopped buying pre-shredded cheese (right?!), and will notice that some cheese has a rind. I’m not talking about the waxy cover on gouda, or a paper wrapper, but instead the hard end of the cheese. Some of these are edible on their own, such as on soft cheeses like brie, but have a distinct flavor that you may or may not like. Some rinds, on hard cheeses like parmesan, are a little too tough to eat on their own. Don’t throw those away! These little rinds are perfect for adding flavor to anything that cooks for a long time, like broth, soup, or even lentils. This is an especially great trick for tomato soup– the cheese flavor goes extremely well with tomato. Simply keep these rinds sealed up in your freezer, then drop one in when you start boiling or simmering the soup or other liquid. It should dissolve and disappear (if it doesn’t completely dissolve, you can remove it at the end of your cook-time).
Note: When cooking for vegans, keep in mind that adding a parmesan rind to an otherwise vegan dish makes it vegetarian instead of vegan, and it does so invisibly. Warn them, or provide an alternative food option.
Do you have any flavor-enhancing cooking tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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