Three tips for improvising in the kitchen
Now that you’ve learned to cook simple family meals for the last few months, are you ready to take off the training wheels?
Cooking outside the box means fearlessly improvising by using what’s on hand, substituting ingredients and tweaking a dish to bring it to another level and make it your own.
Cookbook author and home-cooking expert Lia Huber of Healdsburg has been busy lately helping friends hone their culinary talents as cooking skills have gone from “nice to know” to “urgently needed.”
“Nearly everyone on the planet is getting a crash course in home cooking,” she said. “And many feel like they’re failing. I’ve had more requests for help — or really more like ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ — over the past weeks than I usually get over the course of six months.”
Huber, who leads an online meal-planning program and real food community through her business, Nourish Evolution, has answered the call by creating a free webinar called Easy Weeknight Meals, and a monthlong course, Home (Cooking) School.
“I’m seeing this as a real call to allow our creativity to come forth,” Huber said. “None of it is rocket science, but unless you know these little core bits of knowledge, then your cooking is going to be an uphill fight.”
To help home cooks learn to fix meals without rigidly following a recipe, Huber shared three keys to improvising in the kitchen — flavor, ingredients and technique. She compares the process to music.
“The flavor profile is like the tone or the mood of the song that the musician is trying to set,” she said. “The ingredients are like the notes. The better your pantry is stocked, the more notes you have to play with.”
During the shelter-in-place orders, she strongly suggests a pantry well-stocked with vinegars, for more “notes.” A white wine vinegar can bring a very different note to the dish than a balsamic or apple cider vinegar.
“Suddenly you have a major and a minor scale and four octaves instead of two,” she said. “The more core pantry ingredients you have to draw from, the more freedom you have.”
Mastery of techniques gives a dish structure, just as scales give a jazz solo structure.
“Each of those scales has a very specific mood to it,” she said. “That’s the same thing in the kitchen. The technique that you are applying to a certain set of ingredients will achieve the mood of the dish that you are looking for.”
For example, steaming cauliflower gives you very different flavors versus searing it.
“Even if it has no spice, just searing that cauliflower produces a completely different result,” she said.
“You have the Maillard reaction (caramelizing), so there are a huge number of flavors that have been ignited, including that savory, umami mouthfeel.”
Meanwhile, steaming cauliflower results in a more bland result, so you may need to add extra flavor afterward, perhaps some olive oil and lemon zest.
The three keys to improvising in the kitchen flow together, each influencing the other like streams running into a river.
“You set the flavor profile and choose the ingredients to match that flavor profile that you want,” she said.
“Then you choose the cooking technique to give it structure.”
All about flavor profiles