Contemporary flavor-building that once concentrated on culinary technique is increasingly shifting toward high-impact ingredients. Focused on flavor, these are ingredients that deepen and intensify both simple and complex recipes evermore requisite in meeting the globally diverse, culturally current, progressive palates of present day patrons.
Modern menu makers must implement innovative ingredient approaches that create value, coaxing the maximum amount of flavor from more humble ingredients, which generally speaks to a gastronomically sophisticated population eager for bigger, bolder, braver taste profiles.
An astounding array of cross-cultural, ingredient-based, trendy-yet-traditional tools are getting bigger play on forward-thinking menus and in dishes and drinks, from fine dining to food trucks.
Here are some of today’s key flavor-building components and strategies for using them.
Flavors of the Sea
Little, cured, salted or smoked fish, shellfish and sea vegetables have historically been used to create complexity in even the most humble of dishes. From tiny anchovies and dried bottarga enriching Mediterranean pasta or vegetables, to Asian kombu (dried seaweed) steeped into broth—these ingredients season the otherwise unadorned. The deliberate use of dried fish and shellfish or other sea treasures like roe or even skins and shells impart salinity, delicate complexity, off-the-charts flavor and big umami.
- Lightly warmed spring spinach, grilled quahog clam, sea rocket capers, potato and yogurt
—Birch, Providence, R.I.
- Buckwheat noodle, dried mackerel, cured egg yolk, paddlefish roe, hazelnut
—The Honey Paw, Portland, Maine
Animal-based fats have made a big comeback and, yes, that includes fatback (and lardo, tallow, schmaltz, skins and rinds). Animal fats have always scored high on flavor but, in moderation, are finally out of detention on the health report card, too. Fat not only becomes acceptable, now we’re taking the next step in using a wide variety of whole animal fats for cooking, baking, frying, whipping, dousing and schmearing—and, of course, for those crunchy cracklin’s.
- 2nd Avenue Deli: Chicken salad, liver schmear, schmaltz toast, gribenes
—Misery Loves Company, Winooski, Vt.
- Duck Fat Cauliflower: Red Fresno chile, garlic, caper, mint
—Cockscomb, San Francisco
Piquant chiles are adding more punch to dishes like these scallops crusted with chile de árbol and peanut flour.
Good Fats, a.k.a. anything avocado & coconut
A variety of non-animal-based fats are getting an even bigger nod now as well. Certainly, nut- and seed-based oils continue to propagate as alternatives for vegans, paleos and functional fat seekers. Most exceptional is the recent upsurge for anything avocado or coconut. From oils and milks to dried powders and chips, we’re seeing the flavor and functionality of good fats coming to the forefront.
- Chocolate-Avocado-Coconut Sorbet on a homemade vegan sugar cookie
— Duluth Grill, Duluth, Minn.
- Smashed Avocado Toast Benedict: Poached eggs, curried hollandaise, smashed avocado with curry, mustard seed, lime and roasted potato hash
—Butcher’s Daughter, New York
Those now-ubiquitous “farm” eggs that have been doming salads, burgers, veggies and sandwiches are not just trendy protein value-adders but real umami builders. Taking a cue from global traditions that have long heralded flavoring with fish roe, more poultry eggs are getting similar treatments (like pressing, salting or curing and drying) to further aggregate flavor. Of course, deviling and/or doubling up poultry and fish eggs can be an extra multiplier.
- Creole Louisiana Snapping Turtle Soup, local whitefish roe, deviled quail eggs and Madeira
—R’evolution, New Orleans
- Pickled Beet Eggs: Lightly pickled beets and eggs with salmon roe
- —Preserve, Annapolis,Md.
Miso is the Asian equivalent of the bouillon cube, classically fermented from soy, but more recently from all manner of legumes and grains. Super-concentrated, miso means major mileage for increasing flavor in spreads and butters, dressings, marinades and braising liquids. Miso may seem almost wasted on proteins, yet it’s able to magnify more meager mains often bearing no relation to the Asian dishes where miso originally parked.
- Season Sandwich: Sliced duck confit on fresh brioche with quick pickled cabbage, special XO Sauce, plus Momofuku Lab’s Spicy Chickpea Gochu Karu Hozon Spread
—Duck Season, New York
- Miso Honey Cocktail: Laird’s apple brandy, Bärenjäger, housemade miso caramel, lemon juice, mulled cider and fresh ginger
—Kuma’s Corner, Chicago
On the heels of Sriracha’s meteoric rise, most of the fire in spicy condiments is currently coming from aged and fermented versions with best-in-class brands bringing cultural heritage to the table. Meanwhile, traditional global varieties like Chinese chile crisp sauce, Tunisian harissa, Japanese yuzu kosho, African peri peri or Korean gochujang gain more traction. Fermented, aged and concentrated, heat sources deliver piquancy, of course, but also add complexity for blending with other saucy condiments like mayo, barbecue sauce or mustard. They also serve to amp up the flavor of even the simplest of components.
- PeriChips (fries) + Perinaise (peri peri mayo)
—Nando’s, multiple locations
- Korean Fried “Broccoli Crack”: Deep-fried broccoli bites tossed in gochujang sauce
—Dirt Candy, New York
Cured meats and charcuterie have been a trend-list mainstay for a decade, but their jump off the board and into more bowls and plates both classic and creative has given new rise to utilizing modest amounts of salty meats as much for intensifying a dish as for adding protein to a meal. Along with this old-is-new discovery of functionality brings with it new forms and far-flung foreign formulas, such as the current devotion to the spreadable Calabrian salami, ’nduja.
- Biltong Bruschetta: Stewed tomato and onion with olive oil and biltong on toasted bread
—Xai Xai, New York
- Pasta Torchio: ’Nduja, peas
—Lolita, Portland, Ore.
- Ham and Cheese Snacks: Housemade Widmer’s 1-Year Crackers, prosciutto salt
Vinegar: Modern Sour
Set aside the vinaigrette, it’s so much more modern to shoot your vinegar, eat your agrodolce, sip your shrub and baste with brine. In an unconventional move from the bar to the kitchen, live or less-traditional varietal fruit or grain vinegars, verjus and vinegar-based sweet and sour condiments can balance a cocktail or brighten a braise with equal equilibrium.
- “General Tso” Glazed Wolfe Ranch Quail, garlic, dried chiles, ginger, black Chinkiang vinegar
—WP24, Los Angeles
- Byrrhberry Sotto Pop: Byrrh, seasonal local berry agrodolce, Plymouth Gin; handcrafted, carbonated and bottled
—Sotto, Los Angeles
Once crucified, there seems no end to the unexpected love affair with anything cruciferous. While cauliflower has risen to queen-like status, kale is still king and princely brassica Brussels sprouts may never lose their crown. Roasting the sweetness out of crops like turnips, bok choy or maca makes for newly enticing entrées while spicy radishes (and horseradish) are elevated flavor agents juxtaposed with bits of fat. Spicy, bitter greens like mustard or rabe aren’t just for sides and salads anymore; taking herb-like rank, they are being dried, roasted, pressed and chipped, tossed into salt seasoning, savory granola and ground into pesto to build taste.
- Kale Pesto Lumache: Kale pesto, pine nuts, Italian sausage, chile flakes, pecorino
—Portola, Mountain View, Calif.
- Confit of Slow-Roasted Turnip, wilted turnip greens, Chinese mustard, and Marsala wine reduction
—Del Posto, New York
Green tea, coffee, and bittered or astringent spirited blends such as Pimm’s or Aperol are making their way from the traditional cups to cocktail glasses and even plates. Often revered for their medicinal properties, those same elements can also be flavor-forward drivers. Health-giving green tea or matcha for instance, have some of the highest known glutamate levels, contributing taste, depth and mouthfeel. Adding fermentation, as with kombucha, and we have reached flavor fever pitch. Meanwhile, coffee and chocolate have long been used to deepen sauces like mole or red-eye gravy. Transforming non-traditional recipes with balanced astringency and tannins can covertly give gravity to both bites and sips.
- Matcha-Encrusted Monkfish: Roasted on the bone, dusted with matcha, served with kombu-roasted fish-bone sauce finished with roasted celeriac, horseradish
—Contra, New York
- Pecan Wood-Grilled Colorado Lamb Loin: Espresso sauce and cocoa dust, fingerling potatoes
—Hermosa Inn, Paradise Valley, Ariz.
- Oolong Julep: Bulleit Bourbon, NessAlla Oolong Kombucha, fresh mint
—Natt Spil, Madison, Wisc.
The Bitters Edge
Long the not-so-secret weapon of bartenders (and many cooks), bitters have offered that special enhancement, adding exotic flavors and aromas that can be as perceptible or imperceptible as the creator intends. Bitters have especially excelled in equalizing sweeter cocktails and foods, bringing bittering balance often without a whiff of discernibility. They can also be the more clandestine fix, luminously harmonizing, or highlighting the base flavors without a big splash or dash.
- Mole Bitters-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with orange and chile
—Hector’s, Milwaukee, Wisc.
- A Sea of Trees: Hendrick’s Gin, lemon juice, Grand Genmaicha tea syrup, egg white, shiitake mushroom/fennel/thyme shrub, Bar40 Umami Bitters, dried cherry blossoms and cedar dust
—The Geraldine, Toronto, Ontario