Jim and I were working side-by-side in the kitchen last night. Actually, since I was in the midst of the world’s worst hot flash, he was cooking and I was instructing. Jim isn’t much of a cook – something he’ll freely admit. He can follow instructions pretty precisely and do okay. He’s awesome on the grill. He sometimes comes across something he decides is a “magic ingredient” and begins adding it to absolutely everything he cooks (such as the great Emeril Lagasse Kicked Up Gahlic Salad Dressing explosion of 2002 where he combined the salad dressing and green beans, wrapping it in a tortilla because, hey – it’s a burrito). But really what Jim does is heat stuff up so that it is warm enough to ward off bacteria and food-borne illness. This is how many people cook – with the goal of getting the food cooked, rather than making it flavorful.
On the other hand, building flavor is pretty easy if you know a few cooking techniques. If you can get food to the proper temperature in order to serve it, if you can combine ingredients in a recipe to make a dish, then you can begin to build flavors in your food. Best of all, it won’t take that much longer than just following the recipe ingredient by ingredient and your food will improve by leaps and bounds.
One of the best ways to build flavor is via the Maillard reaction. I know – it sounds all fancy, but it’s really pretty simple. When meat browns, it happens due to the Maillard reaction. When bread browns, same thing. Essentially, what you need to know about the Maillard reaction is this: it adds flavor to food. At its most basic, the Maillard reaction occurs when heat is added to foods containing amino acids and carbohydrates. In food terms, it adds tremendous savoriness meats and other foods.
For example, how do you like your steak? I am a medium rare gal, myself, but I know some people who like their steak super rare in the middle. Yet these same people wouldn’t consider eating a cut of meat that is entirely uncooked. When you are served a rare steak in a restaurant, it arrives crisp and brown on the outside, but when you cut into it, it is nearly raw. And most of the flavor on that steak comes from the brown part on the outside (as well as seasonings), which has browned due to the Maillard reaction.
To promote the Maillard reaction in your cooking:
- Don’t crowd the pan. That inhibits the reaction and instead causes steaming. I work in batches.
- Leave whatever you are cooking in contact with the heat without moving it for several minutes until it browns. Do this with vegetables, mushrooms, onions, meats. This allows for tremendous flavor development.
- If you are thickening with flour, add it to the heated fat in the pan and then let it cook for a few minutes to develop flavor.
- When you add liquids to a pain that you’ve browned meat and/or vegetables in to make a sauce, don’t waste the flavor that is stuck to the pan. Use the side of a wooden spoon to scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
Let’s look at the application of the Maillard Reaction in a recipe for coq au vin.
Coq au Vin
- 6 thick slices bacon, chopped
- One chicken, cut into pieces, skin left on
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 lb button mushrooms, quartered
- 1-1/2 cup pearl onions (fresh or frozen)
- One onion, diced
- One carrot, peeled and diced
- One celery stalk, peeled and diced
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 6 tbsp flour (or sweet rice flour for gluten-free)
- Two cups dry red wine
- Two cups gluten-free chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp thyme
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large, oven proof pot such as a dutch oven, cook bacon over medium high heat until crisp. Remove bacon from fat with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Working in batches, cook the chicken pieces in the bacon fat until skin is browned on both sides.
- Remove chicken from pan and set aside. Add the mushrooms to the oil in the pan. Allow them to stay in contact with the pan for about four minutes to brown before stirring them. Continue to stir and cook for a few more minutes. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Add pearl onions to the pan, allowing them to stay in contact with the pan and brown for a few minutes before stirring. Once cooked, remove them from the pan and set aside.
- Add mirepoix to pan (diced onions, carrots, celery). Cook in the oil without stirring until they are browned. Once browned, stir and cook until tender.
- Add garlic and continue to cook, stirring until garlic releases its scent – about 30 seconds.
- Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir to cook flour about four minutes.
- Pour wine into pan, scraping the bottom of the pan and stirring as you do. Cook for a few minutes to remove alcohol flavors.
- Add chicken stock and thyme. Stir to combine.
- Return chicken, mushrooms, pearl onions, and bacon to the pan, making sure you add any juices that have accumulated, as well. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer.
- Cover pan and place in preheated oven. Cook 60 minutes, until chicken is tender. Serve with egg noodles or rice if you prefer gluten-free.