If you’ve checked out any of the Salt Fat Acid & Heat series, you know just how much these elements can alter flavor for the better or worse and just how often these factors vary in our diet. Not only do we make different choices based on where we grew up or our family heritage, every seasonal change introduces different ingredients each time. With each seasonal and lifestyle change, it can be hard to adjust so that meals feel inspired and flavorful. Focusing on some of these constant changes, there are 5 ways to intensify your spices.
5 Ways to Intensify Flavor in Spices
There are different ways we can choose to use dried or fresh spices in our cooking. Sometimes no heat is involved and other times it’s an important step. Sometimes spices get added as a garnish and other times we add our spices during various stages of the cooking process.
When we heat our spices, we can change their flavors entirely. You may add flavor with spices with low and slow cooking or high, direct heat. Depending on the spice you’re using, one method may be better over the other. Something like dried oregano usually gets added in slow cooking methods but something spicy like pepper and chili powder are delicious once briefly toasted with or without a fat present (although usually we like to add the fat because it is delicious).
Of the 5 Ways to Intensify your Spices, heat is probably the most commonly understood method to work with. Even if you aren’t proficient in cooking, the array of vinegars, oils, fresh herbs, and salts can be overwhelming compared to a quick roast at 350 degrees or fast sauté in a pan. For more tips on what spices to use in the oven, when to toast on high heat and how you can avoid burning your spices, download the Ultimate Balanced Spice Guide.
When to Use Fresh vs. Dried
Not only do we want to consider the way fresh and dried spices and herbs respond to heat, we also need to remember that different cooking methods for these options vary between seasons. Warmer months typically inspire more dishes with fresh herbs that are harder to find in colder months. Our nostalgic experiences around flavor change drastically between the seasons, where your family is from and where you currently live in the world. This isn’t just up to us! We rely on what’s available to us and that changes each season, every year. There is some level of predictability to this but also adds a level of welcomed surprised after a particularly delicious harvest.
It’s important to not only assess how your tastes change with each season but gain awareness of what is available to you. Cost change with weather and region is a good indication of what spices are higher quality and more nutrient dense in those environments. With so many factors that influence our cooking methods, choosing when to use fresh vs. dried spices and herbs is a very personal choice, however, these choices are not left entirely up to preference. For the best results, paying attention to seasonal changes as well as cost fluctuations gives us a lot of context to when is the best times to choose between different forms of spices & herbs.
Choosing the right acidic ingredient to pair with your spices is probably the trickiest part of getting flavor right. Each acidic ingredient also has additional taste profiles. Some are more salty and others more sweet. Some acidic ingredients can even taste completely different between harvests, season or batch. Recipes that have an emphasis on acidic ingredients can yield many different end results based on these types of factors.
Additionally, our ability to experience the sensation of sourness relies on our own individual nervous system responses, meaning that we each don’t necessarily experience sourness at the same degree from one another. This can make cooking for other people tricky because what you might think is a perfectly balanced dish may taste slightly different to others at your table, especially if you come from different cultures and are used to eating different acidic ingredients.
If you aren’t experienced in working with different acidic ingredients, experiment with options that are more consistent each time it’s used. While balsamic vinegar is commonly used and easily accessible, not all balsamic vinegars are made exactly the same. Is is a somewhat less versatile choice to work with compared to something that has fewer options in the store, like apple cider vinegar. While not all apple cider vinegars are the same either, the flavors tend to be closer to one another than some of the balsamic vinegars. Choosing something where you have fewer options to filter through tends to yield more consistency in flavor. You may feel a little more confident that your final dish will taste closer to the original recipe or has a similar flavor appeal to everyone.
Did you know that salt is not a spice? It’s a seasoning. Most flavor is a scent sensation crossed with a base taste on the tongue. Depending on the food, we sometimes taste first before smelling the flavor but for the most part, we can smell something’s flavor before tasting it. Salt is a great base for changing and enhancing the experience of certain herbs and spices.
Many dried spices have a primary base taste that is bitter and lacks saltiness entirely. Having at least 2 additional base tastes to the prominent base taste of certain spices can open up the full flavor. You want to be careful though not to layer too many different items with a completely different base tastes.
For example: you may think garlic and onion have the same base taste but in fact they do not. Garlic has acidic and spicy undertones while onions have spicy and sweet undertones. They go well together because depending on the form you use, their common base tastes melt together and their more prominent and differentiating base tastes compliment one another. If you use too much or too many spices that have very different base tastes with nothing to compliment their flavors, the end result can either taste over spiced or plain terrible. For example, fennel seed and garlic may go well in certain settings, but for the most part might not go together without something to compliment them. Fennel is sweet and bitter while garlic is acidic and pungent. With certain ingredients, this may taste great, but the end result with others will be awful.
In the process of pairing certain spices that may be very similar or completely different base tastes, salt often fills that roll of complimenting what each spice needs in order to work well with the other. For example, raw garlic that is crushed and salted becomes less spicy and the base taste becomes salt. When you taste the salt right away, it changes how you experience the scent of the garlic as well in relation to the other spices that are present. Salt not only changes flavor completely but can change the order in which you experience a combination of flavors together.
Fat is the most dynamic element of my recommended 5 Ways to Intensify Your Spices because its physical and chemical forms can change dramatically based on the cooking method and ingredients used. Fat can either make up a part of one or more ingredients or be a standalone ingredient. How you render fats in your cooking routines or favorite recipes can make your spices sing or taste like garbage.
In addition to changing composition with each method of cooking, fats also interacts with a range of different nutrients. Cooking with fat can unlock some necessary fat soluble nutrients (nutrients that are only available for absorption in the digestive tract when paired with fats) and can also destroy others in the cooking process. Fat soluble vitamins like Vitamin A and Vitamin K are easily found in spices that have a lot of orange and red coloring as well as leafy green herbs like parsley. You can receive those nutrients from dried and fresh spices alike, but range in density.
Layering different forms of ingredients that come from a similar source throughout your dish can ensure you get those nutrients but you also can successfully compliment their flavor profiles. For example- red bell pepper and harissa (comes from ground or dried bell and/or spicy peppers) have similar base tastes but don’t have the same exact flavor or nutrient profiles.
In addition to being a crucial element in cooking with spices, fat is an essential building block to our health and not just for their role in absorbing fat soluble vitamins. Your brain and nervous system rely heavily on fat in the diet for healthy function and neuron activity. Your sense of smell and taste are both intimately tied to these body processes functioning optimally.
Not only does fat change flavor but healthy fat intake and absorption can change your experience with spices on a biochemical level. Next time you decide to go low fat- think again. It might change your experience with flavor for more than one reason that is not just in your head. Your body, your mind and your taste buds will thank you!
Combining the 5 Ways to Intensify your Spices
I typically recommend that instead of relying on the same 5 spices and pantry ingredients in your cooking routine, you have a rotation of at least 3 options for each item and pick 2-4 each time. Sometimes your ideas might not work like you think, but it’s always worth exploring. You never know when a combination you choose will turn into a family favorite.
Explore ways you can combine different flavor enhancers or try one of my all time favorite spice blends in the Ultimate Balance Spice & Flavor Guide.