How to fix under-spicing?

Discussion in 'Food & Cooking' started by geodude, Sep 8, 2012.

  1. geodude

    geodude

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    I've had a problem with under-spicing for years and it's become quite prominent now that I've started to make a serious hobby out of cooking.  I try to minimize salt use, but I find myself having to add extra salt to really make a dish 'pop' once it has been cooked because the spices aren't showing through.  This problem is most prominent when I'm cooking a soup or stew.  I'd like to find out if there is a special method to seasoning soups and stews or if I just need to be more bold and increase the amount of spices I'm putting in.  As an example, here's the list of ingredients on a stew recipe that still has some rough edges.

    Chicken Stew:

    Ingredients:

    3 ½ cups of water

    1 bouillon cube

    2 bay leaves

    1 tsp basil

    1 clove of garlic diced

    ½ tsp paprika

    2 tsp cilantro

    3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs chopped

    1 pound of mushrooms (bella preferred) chopped

    1 onion chopped

    5 sticks of 12” celery chopped

    5 chopped potatoes (3 red and 2 golden preferred)

    2 yellow squash chopped

    4 carrots chopped

    As you can see, this is a large portioned recipe that cooks up a sizable dish.  I get a wonderful aroma out of the spices and some flavor, but there's nothing particularly strong, nothing impressive.  Any thoughts?  Should I be bumping up the spice proportions?  If so, how much?  That's not a skill I've learned yet.

    EDIT:  In case anyone is wondering why I'm not going ahead and just tossing in larger portions of spice and herbs and seeing what happens....I'm dealing with some very picky eaters who pay for a portion of the food, so I'm not at a stage to just lay a plate out and say 'Eat it or cook something else!'
     
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2012
  2. siduri

    siduri

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    Geodude, you're a home cook but people pay for your meals? 

    Anyway, i guess my main question is what is your technique.  Do you brown the meat first, do you sautee the onion, garlic and carrot?  the mushrooms?  Though there isn;t much meat in this, there is plenty of other stuff, and maybe one clove of garlic is too little.  The flavor of the garlic, onion, etc, comes out by sauteeing it.  The meat is much tastier if browned first.  I read water as the first ingredient and wonder if that is the first ingredient you put in the pot. 

    Often the problem is not spices (or in this case, herbs) but is the method. 

    Even people who claim not to like garlic or onion, usually don;t mind it if it's been sauteed and then cooked into soemthing like a stew. 
     
  3. koukouvagia

    koukouvagia

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    I agree with Siduri, cooking a stew is not a matter of how many ingredients you throw in a pot.  It's a series of steps you take to build flavors. 

    For example, you'd start by searing the chicken and then removing it to a plate for later.  Inside the pot now you'll find some ugly little burned bits on the bottom known as "fond" which is the building block of flavor.  In this fond you add more olive oil, and throw in the onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, squash and dried herbs (not the fresh herbs!!)  They start to sweat and their moisture deglazes the bottom of the pot, picking up the fond t and creating more flavor.  Make sure to season.

    Now you can put your chicken back in, the water or stock, and bay leaf.  Stock makes a better flavor but water with boullion works too.  Cover, and let it cook until the chicken and the vegetables are tender.  It would be more flavorful if you used chicken on the bone, the bone has all the flavor.  Once it's done uncover it and continue to cook it until the sauce reduces a bit, this concentrates the flavor more.  Turn off the heat and add your fresh herbs now, if you add fresh leafy herbs in the beginning they lose their flavor and become bitter.  At the end they retain their aroma. 

    Is your process anything like that?
     
  4. cacioepepe

    cacioepepe

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    I definitely agree with all thats being said.  Method is key.  My suggestion is to ditch the bouillon cube all together, especially if youre trying to cut salt.  I would come up with a little spice mix of your own that you could use in place of the cube.  Paprika, cumin, coriander, pepper, dried herbs, dried mushrooms, etc. all make great additions to your stew.  After you sear and remove your meat, roast your veg and I would add the spice mix to the oil to bloom and release their oils.  Any liquids like wine can then be used to deglaze.  Add enough water just to cover and continue to braise like usual.  This way you can control the salt and add fresher flavors (without all that added weird stuff bouillon brings).  With such aggressive flavors you might not have to "over" season like you think.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2012
  5. geodude

    geodude

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    I'm a home cook and people split the cost of the ingredients with me.  Yes, I do sautee the onions, carrots, etc. first to get extra flavor.  I'm curious about the reason the flavors of the spices and herbs I put in there don't really come out.
    To clarify:  I'm not asking if I should throw more spices in the pot, but if I'm using too small of a quantity of the spices currently in there.  At this point I don't know enough That said, yes, my process is a lot like that, though I'm unfortunately currently stuck using a roaster so I'm cooking some stuff out of the roaster and then placing it in afterwards.  I have a Dutch Oven coming in the mail, though, so I should be able to try an 'everything in one pot' approach soon and will do so.  I will also make an attempt at getting some chicken on the bone and learning how to debone it -- I've been planning on learning this skill, anyway, but I have to start from scratch because I've been raised in a 'boneless everything' home, and improving this stew is a good chance for that.
    I love the idea of ditching the bouillion cube and working from individual spices, though I do feel the need to note that I attempted cumin in the recipe in the past.  It was probably foolish of me to use cumin without checking around to find out how powerful it was because I used a teaspoon and a half and the cumin overpowered the entire dish.

    At this point I have some great ideas to work with, and I'm very thankful to all of you for your suggestions, but I'm still curious as to why I'm not tasting the spices I add.  By the way, I apologize for not adding the method part of the recipe, which would have saved everyone who has responded some of their typing efforts.  It didn't occur to me at the time of my initial post that it would be particularly relevant.
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2012
  6. siduri

    siduri

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    I see GeoDude, you're the cook for a group.  Sounds good. 

    For the flavoring, actually I think it should never be obvious what spices you used in a dish, unless it's a dish that is centered on a spice (or herb) flavor.  The herbs and spices shouldn't come out and hit you in the face. 

    If you want to really taste a flavor of an herb, if it's dried, then, like koukouvagia says, sautee it with the onions etc,  And you can increase the quantity just a little.  

    You might try some other herb or spice - try coriander seed rather than cilantro (it's the same plant, one is the leaf and one is the seed) which has a very nice flavor that is not diminished in cooking and adds to the complexity of the dish.  You can crush a few seeds and sprinkle on the chicken when you brown it, along with black pepper. 

    Use crushed black peppercorns rather than ground pepper, it has more flavor.  You can just crush a few yourself on your cutting board with something hard and flat. 

    You could try thyme, which is a little stronger and maybe more suited to chicken than basil, which really is (in my opinion) best used uncooked on top of things like tomatoes, or fresh tomato sauce, not things that are deeply cooked. 

    Or sage. 

    I don;t like it but rosemary may appeal to you. 

    But you're right, don;t just "add more" - keep it subtle. 

    Sometimes a bit (a half a teaspoon) of tomato paste or (yes, just don;t tell anyone) anchovy paste will round out the flavor.  But keep it subtle, you don;t want an anchovy flavored chicken stew or a tomato based chicken stew. 
     
  7. koukouvagia

    koukouvagia

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    To clarify, deboning the chicken before you cook it ruins the idea of "chicken on the bone."  The bone has to cook in the chicken.  Not only does it keep it more moist, but it also lengthens your cooking time which again helps to concentrate and build the flavor in your stew. 

    I agree, in a stew like this I usually add a spoonful of tomato paste, it gives much more flavor.  But if you're not tasting the spices you put in why do you refuse to put more in?  No matter what cooking technique you use if you don't put enough of the spice in you won't taste it.  It sounds to me like you need to get a bit more heavyhanded with the spices and if someone doesn't like it say "I tried my best, if you don't like it you make it next time." 

    Don't worry, I type fast.
     
  8. ordo

    ordo

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    I'll risk it's the lack of salt (at the correct moment and in the correct proportion) what's killing your flavors.
     
  9. flipflopgirl

    flipflopgirl

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    Sage ;-) advice here.

    Leave chic on bone, change up your spice mix, different proteins have certain flavor profiles that are considered classic.

    Classic is a good thing when attempting "soul/comfort food" .

    May sound silly, but pick up one of those firehouse cookbooks.

    Those guys are genius when it comes to one pot dishes on a budget.
     
  10. boar_d_laze

    boar_d_laze

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    Posted by ordo  
    Yes!  +1.

    In addition to under salting, it reads and sounds like you're doing lots of other things wrong.  You need proportionally more onion and garlic, and less yellow squash.  Yellow squash is watery and takes away more than it brings to the party.  If you're going to use it, it needs to balanced by veg with more character.

    Reading through the thread, your ingredients and technique make your dish sound watery and tasteless -- a lot more like weak soup than stew.  If that recipe is for three people, it's far from generous. 

    You need to season the whole, bone-in, skin-on, chicken pieces well, then brown them, and remove it before browning, sauteing or softening the vegetables.  You need to start with the aromatics -- onion, celery, carrot and garlic, before adding the potatoes and whatever else.  You should add a little salt as soon as the onions soften.  Some herbs should be sauteed before adding liquid; but by and large they're better in a bouquet garni or tea ball. 

    You're not getting nearly enough stock flavor from a single bullion cube.  One cube is enough for one cup -- not 7/8 qt.  Bullion cubes tend to be very salty and not very good; there are much better alternatives, like canned or boxed stock, or "Better than Bullion."  If you want to use wine for your deglaze and as part of your broth, go ahead.  I'd probably use some dry vermouth for its herbaceous flavor. 

    Note 1:

    If you're looking for a full flavored stew, you're going to have to start with a full flavored stock.  You're not using anywhere near enough chicken to get much flavor into the stew during what seems to be a relatively short cooking time.)

    Taste the broth when it first comes to a simmer.  Adjust for salt AND pepper.  Use fresh ground pepper, pre-ground pepper goes stale and loses its taste quickly.  If you don't like the idea of seeing black pepper in some foods, get TWO pepper mills -- one for white and one for black. 

    Simmer don't boil.  If you can see boiling, you're cooking too fast.

    You need to skim the scum off chicken stew at least a few times after the water comes to a simmer.  Once you've got the scum out, you can taste and adjust for salt.  Tasting and adjusting is one of the primary hallmarks of a good cook.

    When the stew is done, remove the pieces of chicken.  Discard the skin and bones.  The bone should come out easily, and the chicken should be well enough cooked that you are able to chunk the meat with a fork or a spoon.  Return the meat to the pot. 

    Generally:

    What "seasonings" you choose depend on what you're trying to do.  If you're looking for something French, you'll want to load up on thyme; Northern Europeanish -- tarragon and marjoram;  Southwestern/Mexican -- chili powder or chilies in the cook, raw onions and dried oregano on the side; Italian -- rosemary and oregano. 

    Note 2:

    When it comes to spices:  Don't just use one thing, don't use too many, and use them in such a way that one taste dominates while the other.  

    Finally:

    Your stew lacks interest and acid.  Chop some fresh herbs and add them to your stew along with a goodly squeeze of lemon or lime juice immediately before service.  Serve each dish of stew with a couple of lemon or lime wedges.  Hot sauce wouldn't be a bad idea, either. 

    BDL
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2012
  11. geodude

    geodude

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    Thank you for the clarification and I'm sorry for not being more clear:  I was off on a bit of a tangent thinking that deboning is a skill to learn.  I will definitely leave it on the bone during the cooking process.

    In any case, I will take the suggestions and work happily with them:  Meat on bone, add a bit more of the spices and use some in the sauteeing process for flavor.  Something tells me I will be getting a lot of use out of my new dutch oven... /img/vbsmilies/smilies/biggrin.gif   I'll listen to any more advice I'm given and I'll make sure to report back when I've given this stuff a try with the new recipe, method, and the results.

    boar_d_Laze:

    Thank you for your detailed reply.  I've seen you around in the knives forum giving out advice but I didn't expect to see you here.  I'll take your advice into account, in particular altering the proportions and using stock.

    EDIT: By the way, a relative has suggested that I place all the vegetables in the stew for about thirty minutes to let their flavors soak in and them remove them while the sauce cooks so they don't get too soggy, and then re-adding them when the stew had cooked for a while.  Any thoughts on this method?
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2012
  12. koukouvagia

    koukouvagia

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    More often you'll see that certain vegetables are placed in a soup/stew later in the cooking process.  For example, I just made a french beef stew last week.  I finely diced and sauteed the mirepoix (onion, garlic, carrot, celery) in the fond.  Then I added the aromatics, deglazed the pot with a bit of and put the meat back in along with beef stock and red wine and a tbsp of tomato paste.  It took about 1.5 hrs for the beef to soften.  I then added some sauteed mushrooms and a bag of frozen pearl onions and let those cook for another 15 min before I served it.

    I also do this with soup.  I use lots of onions, celery, leeks, and some carrot in my chicken soup.  I usually simmer it for about 3hrs - by then those veggies are no good anymore, I throw them out and I add fresh veggies (usually onion, carrots, and celery again) to the broth to serve with the soup. 

    So yes, technically you can do as your relative suggested although I prefer to let the veggies do their job and leave them in there and then add fresh veggies near the end.  Another way to add great flavor is to roast the veggies until caramelized before adding to the soup or stew.
     
  13. boar_d_laze

    boar_d_laze

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    Half good idea, half horrible technique. 

    Cook your aromatics (celery, onion, carrot and garlic) from softening through stew -- as already described.  At the same time you remove the chicken from the broth, strain the broth, and return it to the stove with fresh aromatics (minus the garlic), and the rest of the veg -- in your case, squash and potatoes.  If you like you may sweat, soften, brown and/or saute the aromatics and veg briefly in a skillet in a bit of oil or butter to develop their sugars.

    Cook until the vegetables are just done; return the skinned, boned, and chunked chicken to the pot, taste and adjust for salt; brighten with a lemon squeeze; and garnish with fresh herbs as described.   

    Note:

    "Saute" is a very specific way of cooking involving a hot pan, very little oil and (ideally) toss-turning.  It is not quite the same thing as softening or sweating, nor is it necessarily the same thing as browning.  You "soften" or "sweat" in order to break down cell structure and develop the aromatic oils; you "brown" in order to convert starches to sugars.  You can use saute technique to do a bit of both. 

    Note 2: 

    At some point you're going to want to ask yourself if you want to learn how to find and follow recipes or if you want to learn to cook.  While there's quite a bit overlap they are not the same things. 

    BDL

    PS and FWIW.  I'm a better cook than knife guy. 
     
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2012
  14. geodude

    geodude

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    Generally speaking, I like to use recipes as a theme that I can perform variations on to create my own dish.  This means figuring out how things work rather than just rote memorization of recipes.  (For example, how spices work.)  With that thought in mind, I want to learn to cook; that's why I'm here asking for advice on how spices work (for lack of a better term) and asking about techniques I haven't learned yet rather than just Googling another stew recipe.
     
  15. siduri

    siduri

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    I never thought of that BDL - i was just assuming saute was the translation of "soffriggere" or "soffritto" - soffriggere literally means underfry, soffitto is to frying as simmering is to boiling.  But of course, saute means jump - like saltare - so at a high temp. 

    But there has to be a translation of soffriggere - sweat is very unappealing in food, soften is not very descriptive - i can soften in water too, or smash it with a hammer and soften something (am i heavy-handed?)

    is there a better term?  Or am I stuck with "fry over low heat until transparent but not browned" as Julia Child always said?
     
  16. flipflopgirl

    flipflopgirl

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    A few simple, well reviewed cookbooks are a must, IMO, for those with their first real piece of cookware.

    Try this one... How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (altho you will find that he doesn't really show you how to cook everything, ;-)

    Found it to be a great way to learn simple techniques as well as a great base for many dishes (makes a good read as well as a good stand-in for your mom, lol.)

    It was recommended reading for my 4-H (Food and Nutrition) kids and my usual gift for to seniors that are off to college.

    American Cookery by James Beard (you may have heard of this guy) is also a great reference tool.

    Have used it many times just to check on a ingredient or technique, very user friendly.

    Notice I am advising to use these cookbooks as reference tools, as BDL advises it is far better to learn to COOK that just follow a recipe.

    Just have patience  and the rest will fall into place.
     
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2012
  17. ordo

    ordo

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    STIR FRY.
     
  18. boar_d_laze

    boar_d_laze

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    I was unclear and apologize for it.  Of course I think learning to read and follow recipes, while evaluating them with a "virtual palate" are among the most important skills for anyone learning to cook who is no longer at a parent's knee.  And, this particular chicken "stew" is a good example of why. 

    At some point the skills you learn from cookbooks, cooking columns, cooking shows, etc., enable you to move away from recipe following and into recipe creation, improvisation and so forth -- but that takes experience and willingness.  GeoDude has the willingness but lacks the palate, technique, and general understanding which come from practice.  A good cookbook and/or the right episode of, for instance, a Tyler Florence show would serve him well. 

    He (GeoDude, not Tyler Florence) should also eat meals out -- and not at fast food places -- as much as possible to get an idea of what's now known as "flavor profiles" and appropriate salt levels.  There are few things which would help his chicken soup (it's not really a stew as it now stands) as much as going to a good Mexican place and having caldo de pollo a few times. 

    I'm tempted to give GeoDude a recipe, but don't really know what he's going for in terms of a general approach -- e.g., French, Mexican, Indian -- beyond watery and bland.  I'm not even sure if he wants soup or stew and regret making specific technique suggestions without giving a lot more context.  For instance, there are plenty of ways to make great soup and/or stew which don't involve precooking the chicken or veg or cooking the chicken on the bone. 

    BDL
     
  19. flipflopgirl

    flipflopgirl

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    IMO, Geodude, you have already stumbled on one of the first sensible "rules" when learning to outfit your kitchen.

    You didn't mention what brand of dutch oven you have chosen,but, by researching and collecting your "hardware" ( one piece at a time) will  leave you with tools that last longer (be advised here that most expensive does not always mean long lasting) and are for the most part most useful.

    Be sure to pick the brain of my colleague, Mr BDL, when you are ready to add a piece to your collection.

    His skills are varied and his wisdom is legendary ;-)
     
  20. geodude

    geodude

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    I'm looking for an americana style stew and trying to avoid watery and bland, hence asking for advice./img/vbsmilies/smilies/smile.gif   And for the record, I'm looking for a stew but this is an almost entirely unexplored area for me given that I grew up in a 'soup home'.  Until I run across a cookbook that teaches techniques on how to 'build' a stew (or get enough advice here to hammer that out) I'm pretty much flying blind.

    EDIT:  I realize that that last sentence invites cookbook suggestions, so to save some typing for anyone who wants to help I'll state that James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking and Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking in the mail, along with the textbook On Cooking, second edition (That should teach me a thing or two!).  I'll be picking up The Joy of Cooking as soon as some money comes in.  I'm open to suggestions to expand beyond those books.
     
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2012