Depth of Flavor

I read an interview in New York Magazine with Christina Tosi, pastry chef at Momofuku, not long ago, who mentioned that one of her secret ingredients in baking is milk powder. It adds real depth of flavor, she said.

And last week, my friend and I were talking about his odd habit of eating unsweetened spicy peanut butter melted over mixed steamed vegetables. It’s not unlike Thai peanut sauce, but it definitely lacks some depth of flavor, which his wife and I realized came down to one missing key ingredient: fish sauce (a squeeze of lime would help, too).

It got me thinking about other little dashes of this and pinches of that, the secrets to creating depth of flavor. Soy sauce is another good example. Anchovies, which I used in a small quantity in a very simple soup yesterday (the rest was just fava beans, garlic, rosemary, tomato paste, and chicken stock), created the taste illusion of a meaty fish stew without me having to add big fishes.

Mushrooms are one of the most often cited ingredients for adding depth of flavor, especially if they are sautéed for a long time or dried and rehydrated, as in the case of porcinis. Slip a cube of beef bouillon (or if you’re a professional, a spoonful of demi glace) into just about anything savory and you’ll produce a base of richness for other flavors to stand on. Vegetarians can look to miso instead.

As one of the comments in a previous post alluded to, cocoa powder can do the same thing, but not only for flavor, but color, as it does in Cincinnati chili and mole.

Another one of my favorites, which doesn’t always technically create “depth” of flavor so much as help extend the existing flavors, is breadcrumbs. I use good homemade breadcrumbs in everything from meatballs (ground pork or chicken, a lot of ricotta, a lot breadcrumbs from rosemary bread, parsley, salt, red pepper flakes), to apple strudel, to orzo salad.

When people are new to culinary stuff, a term like “depth of flavor” can be confusing. But if you give a number of examples like these, they can start to think about what characteristic all these things have in common, thereby cultivating an understanding of the meaning. I think wine tasting is the same. Until you taste the same characteristic several times in a few different wines, it’s hard to know what “tannins” are or what is meant by “structure.”

(There are some linguistic theories about how people learn language by classification, by first understanding what’s the same about a number of things – “all dogs have four legs, all dogs have fur” – and then understanding what’s different – “this thing has four legs and fur, but it also has antlers; having antlers makes it not a dog.” That’s kind of what I’m getting at here: Having multiple experiences to compare others against and find similarities between.)