5 Small Ways to Add Big Flavor to Any Recipe

Give any recipe a quick flavor boost with one of these easy tricks!

Photography Credit: Sally Vargas, Sheryl Julian, Irvin Lin, and Emma Christensen

If you cook frequently, you may find yourself hitting a proverbial wall—you want to improve your dishes, but sometimes, after adding more salt and pepper, it’s not always clear what to try next.

Improving our cooking skills is always admirable task, but will that effort pay off in a better tasting dish? Here are five tiny tips that can make a huge flavor difference.

Lemon Zest

1 Perk up your greens with lemon zest

Give dark or bitter greens like mustard, kale, dandelion, and collards a lift with lemon zest. It will add a brightness and acidity that you didn’t know the meal needed. This is great if you’re making a quick side dish of wilted greens, or if you’re cooking a recipe that requires a lot of dark greens.

The best tool to use when zesting a lemon is a Microplane grater. It makes fine shreds of lemon zest that literally melt into your dish. If you don’t have one, try using the finest holes on your cheese grater.

Start with the zest from half a lemon, and add at it at the end of cooking, just before you take the dish off the heat. Stir it in, taste, and add more if you’d like. (Note: For salads made with raw dark greens, you can also use lemon juice or zest in the dressing.)

2 Wake up dried spices in the cooking fat

Fat helps intensify the flavor of dry spices like cumin, coriander, and chili powder, and also carry their flavor throughout the dish. So instead of waiting to add the dried spices at the end of cooking, when everything’s all combined, add them at the beginning!

Here’s what I do: First, I sauté the onion or shallots (sometimes you’ll see the recipe suggest carrots or peppers here, too; that’s fine). Then I add the garlic, followed by the spices.

Sauté just until the spices are aromatic, 30 to 60 seconds, then carry on with the recipe, or remove the pan from heat so the spices don’t burn.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

3 Toast the nuts. Always.

Toasted nuts are so much more flavorful and crunchy than raw nuts, and yet so many recipes skip this step. It really only takes a few minutes, but it makes such a big difference in the flavor of the finished dish—it really does magnify the nuttiness..

Toast nuts a skillet over medium heat or in a low oven. Just make sure you keep a watchful eye so they don’t burn – or rather, a nose!

When they’re done, toasted nuts will smell wonderful and look slightly darker. It can take anywhere from five to ten minutes, depending on the nut itself (smaller, thinner-skinned nuts will brown faster) and the level of heat you’re deploying.

Coffee Ice Cubes

4 Give your dish a coffee boost

A splash of strong coffee does wonders for the flavor chocolate cakes, brownies, and even a robust, spicy chili. When you employ it in baking it plays a subtle but important role in amping up the chocolate flavor. When you add to something like a chili or a slow-cooking braise, for example, it creates some complexity.

Use fresh coffee if you have it, but you can also freeze that last cup or two left in the morning pot so you have some coffee ready for later. Freeze it in ice cube trays until solid, then pop out the cubes and store them in a freezer container until needed.

Frozen cubes can go directly into hearty soups, braised meat dishes, or other stove-top recipes. For use in baking recipes, like brownies or cake, I’d recommend thawing a cube or two in a measuring cup and adding this to the wet ingredients. If you’re only adding a tablespoon or two of coffee, it shouldn’t interfere with the total volume of wet ingredients in the recipe too dramatically.

Skillet Chicken Puttanesca

 5 Add anchovy paste for umami

Anchovies—and anchovy paste—are a tremendous flavor amplifier. It gives you that savory boost that can transform a dish from good to great. Look for tubes of anchovy paste near the canned tomatoes at the grocery store. A little goes a long way and the tube lasts forever when refrigerated.

Keep in mind, too, that anchovy paste adds a salty taste to your dishes, so keep an eye on how much salt you add as you cook. Don’t be afraid to taste as you go.

Even better? You can add the paste directly to the dish. No need to bother with mincing tiny anchovies.

Have any other great tips for giving your recipes a flavor boost? Please share!

6 Comments

  1. Tom Martinek

    Similar to anchovy paste, I also add a dash of fish sauce and/or a teaspoon of marmite. Lots of time I add a small amount of each one. That way you get the extra flavor boost without the danger of one taste overpowering the dish.

  2. Lana

    Worcestershire sauce adds a great depth of flavor to pasta sauce and when I skip it I can really tell the difference. It is great in any beef dish.

    Anytime I feel like a soup needs a boost I add a few drops of hot sauce. Not enough to make it spicy but to just boost the flavor. If you taste your soup and it is sweet you can also use a but of mustard.

  3. Sherry

    Thanks for these great tips! I’ve jotted them down on a sticky note and will begin using them immediately.

  4. Lilly Gorman

    Totally agree! Citrus can add such a zip to almost any recipe. I’ve never thought about the coffee boost or the anchovy paste before. Those are some good tips! Thank you for sharing!

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