Hello, 5 Seasons Diet Team! You have almost made it to the end of June! It has been an amazing month for all of us here in the kitchen, and we hope you agree. (Two words: Chocolate Smoothie. Talk about looking forward to breakfast…!) Last week, we talked about zesting citrus and why citrus is often used in recipes. This week, let’s talk about the four basic components to great flavor: salt, fat, acid, and heat. You may have seen Samin Nosrat’s book of the same title; it is a great one if you would like to learn more.
First, salt. Salt can feel like a Catch-22 in the American diet. We are told to strictly limit our intake because of health concerns, but it makes foods—even sweet ones—taste so much better. Tristan addressed salt in a recent newsletter, so you know that as with most things, salt in moderation is just fine. You also know that the quality of the salt that you buy makes a difference, which is why we recommend using fine sea salt as the primary salt in recipes. You can also use a flake salt, such as Maldon, to add texture at the end of a dish.
Salt in low concentrations reduces bitterness while increasing sweet, sour, and umami flavors; it is why greens like kale and broccoli rabe benefit from a pinch, or even a blanch in salty water. Blanching is when you have a pot of boiling water and you cook the kale or broccoli rabe for no longer than one minute. In larger concentrations, salt will reduce sweetness and increase umami, which can make a caramel more layered instead of just sweet. Salting (and tasting) a recipe in little bits as you cook, rather than all at once at the beginning or end, can help you add a depth of flavor to your foods as the salt works on each ingredient.
Next, fat. Fat is a flavor transmitter because it can dissolve aroma compounds that are not soluble in water, and aroma is the key component of taste. Fat also contributes to the mouthfeel of a dish and like salt, it can tie flavors together. As with salt, the amount and the quality are important. Leave fat out of a dish and it is lackluster, but add too much and it is greasy and unpleasant. A moderate amount, added at the beginning for cooking and/or at the end as an enhancer, is all part of a healthy diet. We recommend coconut oil and ghee for cooking fats because they are more stable when heated. Extra virgin olive oil is delicious as a finishing oil and in dressings.
Third, acid. Acidity and sourness are the same thing. Acidic foods like lemons or vinegars wake the palate up; you can probably just think of the sourness of a lemon and your mouth will start to water. Acid cuts through fat, which is why vinegar is often used in a long-simmered dish of collards and pork hocks. The fat from the hocks can taste heavy and flat, but with the addition of the acid, a brightness is added that livens up the dish. (If it’s a spicy pepper vinegar, so much the better for this chef!).
If a recipe tastes flat to you, reach first for a splash of vinegar or citrus at the end, rather than salt. You may find you still want more salt, but the added acidity will usually do the trick and can help you keep sodium levels in check.
Finally, heat. There are two ways to think about this word: temperature and spice. In the temperature category, knowing when to sear something fast and hot versus braise something slow and low can be the difference between shoe leather and rich, juicy meat. It can also be the difference between a crisp vegetable stir-fry that is exciting to eat and a limp pile of vegetables that may as well be pureed and sipped with a straw. Our recipes are designed to guide you to the heat and timing you need so they will be delicious. (Want a medium-rare flank steak that is beautifully seared on the outside, or crisp-tender vegetables that have some texture? Cook them on medium-high to high and do it fast. Want a carrot you can mash with your fork in order to stir it into the gravy that goes with your meltingly tender pot roast? Cook the dish with a braising liquid over medium-low to low and do it for a long time. We’re simplifying, but you get the gist…)
Heat-as-spice is another way to liven up a dish, but be careful here. All hot peppers—jalapeños, poblanos, shishitos, habaneros, etc.—have varying heat levels even within the same plant. If you have a low heat-tolerance, start with just a little of the pepper, and make sure you remove the seeds and ribs. If you have a higher heat tolerance, we still recommend being judicious in your use. The recipes are designed to have balanced flavors and sensations. Wearing gloves while you work with hot peppers is also a good idea. You can trust us, rather than rubbing your eyes after chopping jalapeños in order to test this theory. Ask us how we know…
We would love to hear how June has gone for you. Were there any recipes you especially loved? Any with which you had concerns? Please email us with any questions, comments, or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.