Get Cooking: Finding the flavor

Get Cooking: Finding the flavor

When I grew up, there seemed always to be a can of what my father called “bacon grease” in the refrigerator. It wasn’t used much for further cooking — my father’s intention — but was just topped off by him more or less weekly. For her cooking (that is to say, nearly all the family’s food), my mother found its flavor too strong, over her preferred butter, so she rarely sought it out.

It’s no surprise that I have taken after both my parents in the kitchen; they taught me much. But I don’t have a can of bacon grease in my fridge. Sorry, Dad.

Instead, both my refrigerator and freezer are replete with saved flavors, all of which I eagerly add to my ongoing cooking. This is about “finding flavors” and saving them, not always for times ahead, but also as you are cooking, for many right-nows.

Fats

Fat — widely eschewed but universally loved — is one great carrier of flavor. It has flavor (sometimes too much, as in bacon drippings), but always carries the flavors of any dish in which it is found, like so many wee ball bearings, right onto and along the palate.

After you’ve done browning some meat or vegetables in a pan, when a recipe says, “Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil,” keep back those drippings in a can or jar. The meat fat that is there, or the now-flavored olive or vegetable oil, will add that much more flavor to the next batch of fried or sautéed things.

If a recipe asks you to render duck fat from, for example, a breast before continuing to pan-sear or roast it, never, never waste that fat. Have you seen the price of even a small jar of duck fat? Plus, (insert dramatic brow-wiping gesture here) to toss so much flavor … .

Liquids

Likewise, how many gallons of flavor do we pour down the drain without a thought?

I have cooked a few cassoulets since the first of the year, saving back all the liquids in which I have had to cook either the beans or pieces of pork before building the final dish. Of course, each recipe stipulates that anyway, because the assembled cassoulet requires two or three cups of liquid for the long cooking. But a single cassoulet recipe uses only some, never all, of those liquids.

The first cassoulet’s liquids became the next cassoulet’s beginning broths (with, yes, more water added, yet far less than what I would have had to use if started completely afresh), and so on. By the fourth cassoulet, I was sneaking sips of my boiling liquids alone, just for their intense flavor.

Save back your cooking liquids for further use down your kitchen’s road: from boiling pasta or rice, poaching fish, or steaming vegetables.

However, I’ve also found that after-liquids from steaming in bamboo (buns, eggs, rice or vegetables) have too much woody taste to be good for a next time. If you are looking to save flavorful liquid remains, use a steel steamer instead.

Dem bones

It goes without saying that saving some foods’ scraps abets further flavor. In a turn of phrase, this is stock talk.

I rarely use canned or Tetra-packed broths or stocks, preferring to making my own. To that end, I keep many packets of meat and fowl carcasses or bones in my freezer.

I know many folks who do the same; it’s the “save the Honey Baked ham bone” for pea soup camp.

But, it appears, more people toss away flavor-savers such as vegetable trimmings, such as those from carrots, tomatoes, waxy potatoes and celery; the stems from parsley, cilantro and other herbs; broken-off mushroom stems; and yellow onion skins. Yes, onion skins; their brown color adds the same to stock, plus deep onion flavor.

Browned bits

The main reason that so many recipes stipulate, after a quick sauté or browning, “scrape up any browned bits” is simple: that’s where gobs of flavors are.

Fancy French for this is the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that explains the caramelization of proteins and sugars in browned foods of any sort (cookies, steaks, caramel itself and roasted vegetables, for instance). Leave behind burned stuff, but not browned stuff.

And when scraping up any browned bits, deglaze — that’s another fancy French term — with liquids that themselves carry flavor. Water works, but so do most fruit juices, wine or beer (even day-old, or cubes of either frozen), or, of course, any of those liquids such as cooking water from pasta or beans that you’ve kept.