Sometimes, when we cook, we cut corners. In order to save time, we take shortcuts, using processed foods with already-built-in flavor instead of cooking from scratch.
But there are some old-fashioned cooking techniques that already exist to boost flavor, making the use of processed foods unnecessary. And they don’t take up too much time. I learned a lot of them from my mother, a Southern cook with a huge family.
1. Brown Your Meats Before Cooking
Whether fried, baked, broiled, boiled or even (ahem) microwaved, any meat will taste better if it’s been browned. This can be done by frying the meat in its own fat, broiling it in its own fat, or using another fat, such as butter or olive oil, in a skillet.
When I’m cooking, I generally seek the quickest way to do this. I might brown a roast in the same skillet I cooked bacon in that morning—and the same grease. I might use the broiler if the oven needs heating anyway. If it’s a burger, I’ll sear it on a hot grill first thing, like a restaurant might do. Browning usually takes a little more up-front heat to accomplish, so remember to dial it back for actual cooking.
2. Use The Drippings And Scrapings
Drippings are used to make gravy and sauces for a reason: that’s where the great flavor resides. If you brown your meat, these flavorful drippings and scrapings can be incorporated into the dish or even into side dishes. If I brown meat in a skillet, I will rinse and scrape the drippings from the pan with a splash of water, wine, milk or whatever best suits the dish. I will then add it to the dish or use it to make the aforementioned gravy or sauce.
For the love of all that’s holy, do not deem it unhealthy and pour it down the drain; the ghost of Julia Child could be in the room with you and shriek in horror. Yes, even ground beef dripping in moderation can produce some nice flavor in a soup.
3. Cook Things Slowly
Savory dishes should be cooked as slowly as possible. Generally, browning has to be done at higher heat but, ultimately, the temperature should be dialed back and the meat should be cooked slowly enough to extract and blend all the flavors. Otherwise, the flavor will be diminished and the meat will toughen due to being over- or under-cooked.
4. Seek The Deep Flavor
Finally, my mother used to say that the only dish to which you don’t add onion is ice cream. Let’s face it. There are certain spices and vegetables you can’t do without. These include onion, garlic, salt and black pepper. If I were on a deserted island, I would consider starvation before foregoing these flavor-makers. There are many, many others, of course, but these are useful even in the browning phase. Onion and garlic both taste better browned, or even caramelized alongside the meat, and it can all be done at the same time.