Mushroom powder. I often find large boxes of discounted gourmet mushrooms and dehydrate them, then reduce the smaller bits into a powder I can then add to many dishes that needs a bit more of umami and depth of flavor.
Everyone has a different relationship with food. But even when some of us manage to burn everything we lay our hands on, cooking is still an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience. And no matter your skill level, there are always benefits to learning something new.
Sure, numerous complicated techniques allow aficionados to produce fantastic dishes. But this also reveals a common misconception that you need to know the ins and outs of the cooking business and learn countless complex tricks before you can create spectacular dishes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
To gain more insight from an expert about easy ways to make food look and taste fantastic, we reached out to Belgian food and travel blogger June d’Arville. Feeling a deep love for everything food-related since she was a child, June started a blog with her husband called Luc & June. In an attempt to share their passion, they have been endlessly blogging about cooking, delicious-looking food, fascinating stories, and advice on travel destinations around the world.
Kimchi. I honestly put kimchi in everything: soups and stews, with eggs, sandwiches, on grilled cheese, in burritos…! I love it the spice + fermented bite + crunchy cabbage is just perfect for me in a lot of dishes.
Relatively basic, but. Crushed red pepper flakes. A decade ago they’d never *been* in our house. Now I use them basically every day.
More recently: those little tubes of tomato paste. Being able to add just a small amount of tomato to a dish that would benefit from it is a godsend.
“Recipes are nothing without ingredients,” June told Bored Panda. Components are a major aspect of cooking, and, most importantly, they are often the key to what it takes to make or break a dish.
“I remember a chef once said that the food you prepare in your kitchen is only as good as the quality of the ingredients that you use. You can’t buy the cheapest steak and expect it to taste like wagyu,” the food blogger explained.
Tabasco Chipotle sauce. Adds a smokey flavour without any real heat to so many sauces. Its my new secret ingredient and transforms so many dishes by just adding that something extra
Salt. I had to learn how to use it with purpose so that flavors are enhanced and not overwhelmed by it.
Moreover, when we gather good products to make a successful dinner, they don’t require a lot of side flavors. “In cooking, the term ‘less is more’ is a beautiful thing but, unfortunately, highly underrated. That is why working with substitutes in a recipe is quite a challenge as well.”
June pointed out she sometimes receives comments or emails from readers, saying they tried out this or that recipe and it wasn’t good at all. “But they changed or left out half of the ingredients or condiments and used another protein. Substitutes are just close alternatives, not a magical wand,” she said.
I love how simple you can go with your food if you just add a few fresh herbs. It really elevates anything.
One truly fascinating thing about cooking is that it offers endless opportunities for experimenting. Of course, being told to use your creativity in the kitchen when all you did in the past was follow the recipes to a T can be intimidating. And when we finally gather the courage to shake things up and something goes wrong (and it often does!), it can also be discouraging. But every once in a while, it’s oh-so-rewarding to see our efforts lead to wonderful creations in the kitchen.
Shallots. You can use them in any recipe that calls for an allium. If garlic would be too pungent or overwhelming they are perfect. They’re often more delicately flavored than onions. Fried crisp and they make an amazing garnish. Pickle them and serve them with salads. They are an essential ingredient in dressings. You can grate them into sauces (especially yogurt based ones) for a great oniony depth.
Hell, you can bake them up on their own and eat them too.
For me it’s ghee. Ghee is clarified butter and when I went to Ayurveda school, I did my thesis on ghee as I am also a biochemist and in Ayurveda it is considered the “best of all oils” for health reasons. It also has a high smoke point for cooking and I use it a lot for things like scrambled eggs and sauteed vegetables. Ghee made from butter from grass fed cows has heart health benefits as well!
Sometimes, it’s best to see cooking instructions as guidelines and inspiration. One thing that makes this process much easier is becoming more aware of the countless ingredients our world has to offer.
“The more you cook and experiment with food and cooking, the better you will become at it,” June noted. “If I look at how I cooked, let’s say, 15 years ago, I hardly knew anything about it. If you would have asked me then to make, for instance, a ramen soup, I would have scratched my head not knowing where to start. Food blogging made me explore and experience different flavors and cuisines I didn’t grow up with. It takes time, but enjoy the culinary ride!”
Berbere is an Ethiopian spice mix that I now believe the be the finest mix available. It can be quite hot but the depth of flavor is incredible. A simple corn and cheddar quesadilla gets transformed into fine dining with a quick dusting of this stuff!
Fresh, non-chinese, garlic.
Early on, I used to use pre-minced garlic and then I transitioned on to the whole, but cheap, rooster garlic from China, which is everywhere. Now, finally, I have learned to appreciate fresh local garlic. My god, does it make a huge difference.
We wanted to know if June could share some of her favorite ingredients that could immediately elevate our skills, and she was kind enough to reveal a few. “I am an avid user of fish sauce,” June told us. “I like the subtle salty flavor it adds to food, especially in soups and marinades. And it is not as harsh as the usual pinch of salt.”
“Sugar is also another ingredient that I learned to appreciate while traveling in Asia and taking cooking classes there,” she added. “I do not have a sweet tooth at all, so for me, adding sugar to food was a huge no-no. Until I started to see what sugar can do to savory dishes, such as marinades, winter dishes and tomato sauces.”
The food blogger pointed out that finding the right balance between the sweetness and saltiness in a dish is such a satisfying challenge. “Fresh herbs is another thing that can really brighten up a dish without any effort. Think of fresh mint and cilantro.”
Vinegar, lemon, any kind of acid. Years ago I read or saw some cooking show saying that if your dish is tasting kind of meh or it tastes like it needs more salt but you already added plenty, you add some sort of acid and it brings out the flavors.
Sour cream, even just a small dollop, makes gravies and sauces richer and creamier (if you add a lot, you wind up turning all your food into stroganoff, so be judicious). This is particularly useful when you’re reheating leftovers and the texture is off, or if things are overly seasoned because sour cream dilutes the intensity, especially when it’s salty or spicy. I also like to add a hefty spoonful of sour cream when I make casseroles without going the “use cream of whatever soup” route — you get a creamy texture, but without so much heaviness and salt.
A small amount of sour cream (like, 1 tablespoon for 2-3 eggs) is also terrific blended into scrambled eggs before you cook them. The eggs get fluffy and silky as a result.
I don’t know if it changes the way I cook, but I recently started adding Szechuan peppercorns into my pepper mill along with tellicherry, roughly 1:3, and that’s been really nice
So if you strive to learn more about the joy of cooking, just keep going! “Learning how to cook takes time, but you will definitely get there. Be patient,” she advised. “Start off by making dishes that you like and know well. And along the way, throw in a couple of cooking challenges, small ones in the beginning. Like making fresh pasta, or folding gyoza, or making a Thai curry.”
“Make simple store-bought foods from scratch for a change, like green pesto or fresh tomato soup. Gradually start to get used to flavors and condiments you don’t know well. Write down what you do, why not start a blog about your experiences? Enjoy your creations and learn from your mishaps. Just take your time and keep it fun,” June concluded.
May I offer: the humble mayonnaise.
Fat is flavor and mayo is fat. It also offers acid for balance. Whether it’s to lubricate a dry bread or bun, or to make your fries sing, this symbol of American blandness and homogeneity blasts away its unfair reputation and brings flavor to the forefront of any dish lucky enough to include it. Make meat meatier, salt saltier, and herbs herbier. Mix it with garlic to pack a punch your pout will praise. Add mayonnaise to your grilled cheese to bring out the subtle notes of cheddar and havarti. Stir it in to your wet salads to harmonize the salty and sweet ingredients. Subdue the bitterness of vegetables with a smear of your new favorite condiment, and let yourself taste the sweetness of their caramelization in a whole new way. Mayonnaise. You won’t regret it.
Anchovies (in oil) – great umami boost to almost everything, and they absolutely ‘disappears’ in most foods, so don’t worry about the texture.
White pepper. It adds a unique ‘je ne sais quoi’ to anything you put it in, it’s my secret ingredient in so many things.
Nothing crazy – oregano. But growing up no one put seasonings in sandwiches, just mayo and the like. Oregano goes great in ham sandwiches, turns out. Now I use spices in all my sandwiches, p. much, haha
Sorry to sound mundane but mustard and mustard seeds did it for me.
Coconut aminos, which I used as a low sodium soy sauce substitute. I love the flavor even more than soy sauce as it adds a slight sweetness as well and it goes great with a stir fry. I ended up eating a stir fry at least 5x a week for a year straight after I discovered them that’s how much I liked them.
Gochujang has changed my life. I don’t find the one I’ve bought all that spicy (sometimes I add gochugaru for some extra kick) but the flavor is just so unique and delicious. This is kind of sacrilege, but I like the make a mayo out of it for a spread or dip that makes everything better.
Powdered ranch dressing mix is fantastic in coleslaw, pasta salad, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, breading, so many things. It’s savory and delicious but no one can put their finger on the flavor.
Might sound really strange as I am European, but wine. I never liked drinking it so the thought of cooking with it was strange to me. Until I made my first authentic Bolognese. Went to buy some more bottles, a wine opener and reusable plastic corks to reseal a bottle that same week.
I was gifted some salts such as truffle, alderwood smoked, black and maldon. I used to use salt as something to accentuate flavor or something to offer a little bit of texture to things like pretzels. Now I’m able to not only use it to accentuate other flavors but to impart its own flavor as a finishing salt. I can also use things like Black Sea salt to change the way that I present to dish. It might look like some weird kind of peppercorn and the grains are relatively huge when compared to table salt and bigger than sea salt but it’s more subtle and also offers this textural aspect that makes it a little bit more fun to use. I didn’t really see the point of investing so much money and specialized salts but once I run out of this truffle salt, I will be buying more and same with a Black Sea salt. I appreciate having my horizons widened as far as the uses of salt is concerned.
Anchovy paste and lemon. Both magic ingredients that you don’t need a whole lot of.
I spent a ton of time working on my fried rice and the biggest game changer I’ve found is that they almost never use just plain butter. Most places use a compound butter that will be some sort of variation of this
. I refer to it as umami butter when I make it myself but I also add a little MSG + ginger, it will completely change the flavor of your rice and make it closer to the hibachi style fried rice. Next time you go to a hibachi restaurant ask them if you can taste just a little side of their butter for reference. Also like others said have all your ingredients ready when you start so you can cook at super high heat with constant stirring and wont burn anything.
Preserved lemon. In addition to the conventional uses (stews and soups) I add some to sweet fillings, such as blueberry compote. I like how the acid affects the sweet.
I like to cook down a couple anchovy filets to start the base of a sauce.
I’ve never been a fan of sour food (salads, cakes, soup, citrus, ect.). I would just never ate more than three bites of any sour foods. That was until my mom brought a bottle of balsamic vinegar to recreate a salad we ate at a restaurant once. That bottle changed the way I approached salad/bread.
Now I have a bottle on my dinning table. I put it on any salad I ate. I put it inside of my sandwiches for the flavor. I toast bread just to eat it with the balsamic vinegar. I even dipped potato chips in them just to get some more. I ate literally anything that have hot bread/cold vegetables with the vinegar. My family doesn’t really like the taste (maybe because I used it way too much and way too frequently and prob not in the proper dishes) but after I moved out that became less of a problem. I have a problem. Please help.
P.S. Tried Miso paste. Was mid. Not for me (prob because our cooking used a lot of fish/oyster sauce + MSG so the flavor isn’t needed)
For Indian food, Hing(asafoetida) is a game changer, also dried fenugreek leaves as a garnish.
For other Asian cuisine, fish sauce, miso paste, and gochujang are my absolute go tos.
Aleppo pepper! Really gives a nice mild heat that’s somewhere between chili powder and paprika
Za’atar. Granted, this is more of a “catch all” – it’s a lot like masala or curry, it has a huge amount of variance between different batches but honestly… if you have thyme za’atar, you may as well use that instead of just thyme.
Kosher salt. Grew up using iodized salt and would always be afraid to ruin food by over seasoning. Switching to kosher salt made it easier to see where I’ve seasoned and how much.
Onion Powder or Garlic Powder.
Even if you are cooking with onions/garlic, the powder can impart a bit of toastyness that just adds a nice flavor to everything. I even put some on my salads. It goes with literally anything on the savory side of the spectrum. They are also the base for a lot of seasoning blends or condiments. A must have on the spice rack.
Vegeta. I put it in everything and people love my cooking 😹😹😹 (it’s just MSG with some seasonings). I also love Za’atar and was thrilled when I saw it at a local grocery store. I’m in Canada and normally would have to go to the specialty spice store to get it. It’s fantastic on chicken (we like to do kebabs on the barbie).
Tomatillos. Not common in shops near me, but I found a place that always has them all the time.
Never without salsa verde amd it goes in all my sanwiches and burgers.
Sherry. Something decent. Dry sack is nice. Preferably on the drier side. Will change your veg for the better.