One of the most important aspects of developing your own dishes is understanding how to layer elements of flavor. It's no secret that I love flavorful food -- after all, my old Instagram handle was Tang and Spice.
But when I was younger, I always thought food had to be heavily spiced to be tasty. These days, I'm more about spice in moderation, and thinking about what type of flavors will complement a set of ingredients. We’re not covering up the ingredient, we’re enhancing it.
When I first started cooking, I followed recipe after recipe with limited understanding of the common elements in a dish. Slowly, I began to pick up on some of those patterns. Through a combination of repetitive cooking and Top Chef (!), I learned that salt and acid are critical in flavoring. Often, dishes fall flat without them.
Additionally, many of you are likely aware of Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (and by the way, you should purchase a copy!). Having watched her show a couple years back, I finally bought the book recently for research purposes in writing this guide and was astonished at her ability to concisely explain these key building blocks.
A set of key flavor elements can transform your cooking from one-note meals into something delicious and stained in your memory forever
The Key Elements
These elements: salt, fat, acid, and heat all add a unique layer of flavor to a dish.
Salt not only makes foods taste saltier, which we humans enjoy because it's essential to our diet, but also enhances the flavors of other elements in a dish (i.e., adding salt to cookie dough enriches the overall cookie).
Fat adds richness, seasoning, and/or a smooth textural finish.
Acid brightens -- think grilled fish with lemon.
Heat brings new possibilities; a sear, bake, or confit all find different ways to alter an ingredient chemically.
On top of these, there are three optional layers that I like to think through when developing a dish: sweetness, crunch, and spice (obviously!).
A small amount of sugar can help balance out a dish, even a savory one
Crunch adds a pleasant textural element.
Spice can create even more depth to a dish.
Think about some of the most popular dishes -- most are balanced with many of these different elements.
Caprese salad uses tomatoes (acid + sugar), mozzarella (fat), olive oil (fat), and salt (salt). Broccoli sautéed (heat) with garlic and lemon (acid) is made with butter (fat) or olive oil (fat) and salted (salt). Chaat can be made of potatoes, samosa, or fried bits (crunch), chutneys (acid, sugar), chaat masala (spice), and yogurt (fat). Southern Vietnamese pho often contains meat, broth (fat), lime (acid), chili peppers (spice), bean sprouts (crunch).
As you start to develop your own dishes, or even alter existing recipes, think through these different elements. All that’s left is understanding how to pair complementary ingredients -- this comes naturally to some, but for others it will take practice and that’s okay! Experimentation and practice and tasting constantly while building a dish will get you there.
And by the way, you don’t need ALL of these layers. You can use them, but many delicious dishes are missing one or a few elements. Toast with avocado, lemon, and salt doesn’t have added sugar. Mac and cheese isn’t really acidic.
Raw dishes don’t use heat. It is just as important to ensure that every element has a purpose as it is to build additional layers. A younger me would have ensured that every element was incorporated in every dish — but sometimes that complexity can muddle the flavors, as opposed to enhance it.
Building a Dish on the Fly
Use this framework to build a dish on the fly. Look in your fridge. Maybe you have a protein, like steak, chicken or fish. You’ll salt (salt) the protein and grill it (heat) in a bit of oil (fat) or butter (fat).
What about the other elements? You could serve the meat with a lemony (acid) side salad -- maybe the salad has fried shallots or croutons (crunch). Fish can easily be finished with some citrus (acid).
Or instead, make a gremolata, made of lemon zest (acid), herbs, and garlic, for some brightness. Marinate the chicken in a spicy yogurt (spice, fat) before grilling.
It’s okay not to have all the answers immediately. You can start by choosing your main ingredient, then assessing what salty, acidic, or spiced ingredients you have in your fridge or pantry.
Exercise #1: Process of elimination to build a dish on the fly
Say I have some cooked chickpeas in the fridge and I’d like to make a salad using it. I have the following ingredients to work with:
Other produce/herbs: Cilantro, tomato, green beans, cucumber, fennel
Salt: Capers, kosher salt
Fat: Butter, olive oil, bacon
Acid: Lemons, oranges, balsamic vinegar, tamarind chutney
Heat: I’m making a raw salad, so there won’t be any heat involved unless I choose to heat some of the complementary ingredients
Sugar: Sugar, honey, balsamic vinegar, tamarind chutney
Crunch: Croutons, fried garlic
Spice: Chaat masala, garlic powder, chili powder, za’atar, black pepper
Take a minute and brainstorm what possible combinations of elements could work well with the chickpeas, then see below for what I’ve come up with. Don’t worry about landing on a final dish yet, we’re simply thinking of a few different ideas.
The first thing I do when I’m trying to narrow down on a set of flavor profiles is to see what patterns exist. What types of cuisines typically use chickpeas? This is not to say that you can only great a dish in the confines of what’s traditionally made, but it’s an easier approach to start off with before experimenting across cuisines.
I know chickpeas are used often in Indian cuisine. What other ingredients are typically found in this culture? I see cilantro, tomato, cucumber, salt, lemons, tamarind chutney, chaat masala, chili powder, and black pepper. One option could be to make a chickpea salad with those ingredients -- i.e. a base of chickpeas, diced tomato and cucumber tossed with minced cilantro and a dressing of salt, lemon, chaat masala, chili powder, and black pepper. I could drizzle some tamarind chutney on top or mix into the dressing. Fried garlic isn’t something that’s typically in an Indian dish, but garlic is, so maybe I garnish with that for some additional crunch.
I also see some Mediterranean ingredients. Maybe I choose a chickpea salad with tomato, cucumber, capers, olive oil, lemon, and za’atar.
There are many right answers here. You may see something I don’t, based on how you grew up eating or a dish you ate at your favorite restaurant. That’s totally okay! The most important thing is that you’re open and eager to try new ideas and work with what you have.
The more you can apply this process, the less you’ll have to venture out to the grocery store or follow a recipe exactly.
To ensure a balanced dish, add a bit of the flavoring at a time (salt, fat, acid, sugar, and spice) and keep tasting and adjusting until it's hit the right ratio for your taste palette. Don't serve food without having tasted it, and season early and often.
Don't smother your main ingredient in other flavors, we're trying to enhance the flavor, not drown it out.
Have fun with this! It’s all about experimentation. There’s no hard and fast “rules”. You can use multiple fats, omit certain layers, etc.
Putting it all together
Here’s the process laid out more clearly:
Start with your MAIN INGREDIENT LAYER: protein, vegetable, etc.
+ choose your SALT LAYER:
Salt takes time to diffuse into different ingredients. Sprinkling salt onto a whole chicken for a dry brine the day before ensures the meat will be nicely marinated on the inside as well as the outside. Larger pieces of meat will take longer. Cook’s Illustrated swears by brining fish. Salting a tomato a few minutes before serving will allow it to diffuse. You can also salt ingredients just before serving with some flaky salt -- this achieves a different taste profile. You’ll get bites of saltiness as opposed to a salted ingredient throughout.
+ FAT LAYER: You can cook in fat, dress a salad in fat (ex: olive oil), garnish (bacon), or dollop (yogurt or cheese)
+ ACID LAYER: Acids can be used to marinate an ingredient (note: if marinated too long, it may make it mushy!), added to a dressing, or squeezed on top. Each of these different methods will yield different results. For example, a grilled chicken that’s been marinated for 30 minutes in lemon juice will yield a much more subtle acidic flavor than squeezing a lemon on top of that chicken.
+ COMPLEMENTARY INGREDIENTS LAYER: Think through what additional ingredients might go well with your dish. Cucumbers complement tomatoes, potatoes complement steak, etc.
+ HEAT LAYER: There are so many ways to cook an ingredient -- from sauteing to poaching to searing, etc. It can be helpful to have an idea of what type of end result you want for your ingredient first and work backwards. For a steak, you’ll likely want a nice, browned crust so poaching doesn’t make sense. Searing and finishing it in the oven is likely the move. For a fish, there are tons of different options -- do you want soft, moist fish? Maybe try steaming. Are you looking for crispy fish? Try deep frying.
+ SUGAR LAYER: You don’t always need to add sugar, but it can help to cut a particularly acidic, spicy, or salty dish.
+ CRUNCH LAYER: This is also optional, but can add a nice textural element to finish your dish.
+ SPICE LAYER: As a final, optional element, sometimes this can completely transform your dish from one cuisine to another. Sprinkling roasted carrots with garam masala evokes a different feeling compared to simple salt and pepper.
Once you’ve got the flavor profile down, you can pair with or mix into carbs if desired for a pasta, sandwich, noodle bowl, etc.
2. A guide to layering flavors
Using the above process, I’ve put together a list of ingredients in each element category to help you brainstorm.