Lipstick, Salt and Acid- Essential Components of Great Food

These 4 basic steps will guarantee you better eating at home, even with no other change in your cooking techniques.
Lipstick, Salt and Acid- Essential Components of Great Food

Nothing pisses me off more than the world of “Instagram Chefs”. Bro- your dish looks amazing! You have a remarkable array of fluid gels and purees. The fact that you've managed to get 12 different herbs and flowers on the plate is, in itself, remarkable! However, too often the basic components that make food taste great are taking a backseat to visual appeal. If you follow these simple rules and change NOTHING else about your cooking technique, I am positive that your food will taste better. Lets get back to basics.

Start with the best quality products that you can get

As the saying goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig”, but starting with shitty ingredients often yields lackluster flavor. If you start with great ingredients, you don’t need to apply any crazy techniques or seasonings to get great results. Less is often more; seasoned chefs often show great restraint and let the ingredients shine. You can see this in action at several great restaurants across metro Detroit— think Selden Standard, Chartreuse, Voyager, etc. 

Let me be clear though… Great quality doesn’t alway mean most expensive. 

Great quality typically means in season, hopefully picked very recently at a local farm at peak ripeness, or sourced by people who take great pride in choosing the most flavorful product. Obviously, for meat, I have to plug Farm Field Table here. Throughout this blog, we will continue to work on breaking down the food marketing that is often misguiding— pretty much all beef, for example. But that will be it’s own discussion.

Salt is a Dealbreaker

Salt is much more than just “seasoning”. Salt liberates flavors from food by releasing aromatic compounds which make up the majority of what you perceive as “flavor”. If you don't trust this notion, think of how food tastes when you have a cold. Salt also can be used to balance other flavors or even add texture like in the case of coarse sea salts or flake salts. For more advanced applications, salt is the key behind certain foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, corned beef, and more.

For general seasoning, though, what is the right amount of salt? The right amount of salt is completely subjective and only you can determine what is right for you. However, heres a great rule of thumb- the right amount is just under what you would perceive as “salty”. If your food seems bland, you probably need just a couple more flakes of salt. If you really want to nerd out, the right concentration of salt for most people will be between .8% and 1.3% in relation to the weight of the product.


Sear/Caramelization aka Maillard Reaction

Unless you’re specifically looking for an extremely light, bright, or clean flavor, understand this- the great majority of roasted, baked, fried, and savory flavor/aromas are the result of the Maillard reaction. Basically, the reaction is due to high temperatures, dehydration at the surface, and a chemical reaction between amino acids and certain sugars. Click here for a more in-depth explanation.

Here are a few simple tips for searing meat/poultry/fish:

  1. Allow the product to warm up at room temp for a few hours. (season it right away for best results).
  2. Preheat a heavy bottom pan, such as cast iron, to high heat
  3. Pat surface of meat/poultry/fish with paper towel
  4. Add high smoke point oil such as canola or grape seed.
  5. At first sight of very faint smoke, gently put meat in pan. leave heat medium high/high. (if you have a light weight pan, leave it higher)
  6. Once you see browning on the edges, you can check the sear. Do no touch it before this.
  7. Once well seared, flip and do not touch.
  8. Sear second side well, finish in oven or sous vide, or other method.

What is the right amount of sear on meat/poultry/fish? The very simple answer is that the right amount of sear is just before it starts to burn. The more brown, the deeper the flavor will be. Many vegetables are equally improved by maillard reactions- Think caramelized onions, roasted brussels sprouts, hard roasted cabbage, cauliflower etc. For vegetables, consider whether or not the product will be fully cooked after roasting. Some items may need to be blanched before hand, or cooked more gently afterwards.

Everything is better with Acid

Acid is another one of these tools that every great chef uses, in almost every dish. Sometimes you use a lot, and sometimes you need just a few drops to make something pop. To date, I’m not sure that I’ve come across a single savory dish that doesn’t go great with pickled onions… 

All acidic components are not created equally, however, and we will have an in depth post regarding acid in the future.

You need to consider: Do you want an assertive flavor, just trying to achieve some freshness, or are you wanting to add literally no flavor, just acidity? For bold flavors, use balsamic, red wine, sherry, or cider vinegars. For slightly less assertive flavors, white wine and champagne vinegars or rice vinegar are great. For simple freshness, citrus fruits are essential. For pure acid and no flavor go with white vinegar or straight up citric acid. For a fun ingredient that will add a bit of acidity and some depth, try tamarind.

Remember-- everything is better with pickles. Everything.