It’s no secret that eating out frequently at restaurants makes it difficult to want to cook at home because restaurants cook with more salt, fat, and sugar than any home cook could bear to add to one dish. In other words, your own food starts to look dull.
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Your sense of taste basically gets rewired for the amped-up stuff. Which makes sense: chain restaurants are especially are notorious for using sauces and dressings that you’d need a dozen ingredients, few of them natural, in order to replicate. It’s bad for your body, your mind, and your wallet.
What’s a home cook to do? The truth is that you’ll probably never be able to hit the sweet spot for taste that your favorite restaurant hits every time. But do you really want to? The goal should be to make more satisfying meals at home, preferably from scratch, and to let the restaurant experience be special.
A key skill to develop is knowing how to build flavor, and there are cheap and easy shortcuts to this involving ingredients many of us may already have at home—or, can easily get.
1. Soy Sauce
Many people think soy sauce only belongs with Chinese cuisines, but it’s rich in compounds that stimulate the sense of umami, which I think of as rich deliciousness. A tablespoon of soy sauce in a marinade, or a dash added to a dressing, sautéed vegetables, stir fry, or even chili and tomato sauce can go a long way.
2. Tomato Paste
Similarly, tomato paste not just for Italian food. It’s high in glutimates, which contribute bigger, rounder flavor. It settles nicely into the background without overpowering a dish.
Get it in a tube, and add a tablespoon to a hot pan of meat or vegetables and brown it, and continue with the recipe.
3. Anchovy Paste
Add a small amount early in the cooking to insert a little depth, meatiness, and savor to dishes like marinara sauces. By the time you eat, no one will know it’s there.
Any form of acid—fresh lemon juice, rice wine vinegar, red or white wine vinegar—is going to make a finished dish pop.
A teaspoon or so added to a hot pan will brighten veggies, fish, and pasta dishes. Keep the pan hot for just a minute after you add it to let it cook in.
5. Fleur De Sel
Replace restaurant processed salts with coarse sea salt—known among cooks as finishing salt.
Pinch a little between two fingers right before you serve, grinding it up a little as you drop it. Less is more, here.
The crunch of salt crystals is guaranteed to add some immediate gratification, and you’re not getting nearly the sodium you’d get at the local grille.
It won’t kill you. If you eat out at a fancy restaurant, writes Anthony Bourdain, you could eat as much as a stick of butter over a whole meal, and that will certainly kill you in time.
But a tablespoon added to just about any dish (including soups and stews) at the end will add depth and what’s known as “mouthfeel.” Both are good.
7. Fresh Herbs
A little parsley can be a beautiful thing—and not just a garnish you toss aside. Same with mint and basil.
Roll the leaves up and slice them thin—a cut known as chiffonade—sprinkle them, and you may bump up the intrigue just a little more.
A really adventurous cook could make a compound butter by mixing herbs and butter, rolling the butter back into a tube in wax paper, and refrigerating it.
Voila—herbed butter on fish, meat, or vegetables.
If you’re anything like me, you might forget to add the pastes and sauces during the early part of the cooking, or the acids, butter, or herbs at the end. It may be helpful to make notes when you’re learning this new process of building flavor by feel and taste. Eventually, though, it will become the only way to cook, and second-nature.