I cook the same dishes all the time, mostly because I like to stick to what’s easy. That being said, repetition leads to boredom, boredom leads to fast food, fast food leads to suffering. So I started using substitutions and fixes to make the same-old meals take new twists and develop flavors I didn’t mind eating over and over. Here are my top six fixes for new recipe revelations!
1. Brown butter: Brown butter has a nutty flavor that adds depth to cakes and cookies and a richness to poultry dishes and sauces. I started using it after the best chocolate chip cookie recipe I’ve ever tried called for it. Making it is easy: Heat your butter in a pan on the stove and whisk, whisk, whisk until it becomes brown and clear, then let it cool and use it as you normally would.
2. Brown sugar: Many people have told me that they assume brown sugar is a “raw” form of sugar. It’s not — just regular white sugar mixed with molasses, which is handy to know if you need some in a pinch! I had a recipe once that said that using all brown sugar in cookies made them more “sympathetic,” which I think is (weirdly) true — white sugar is sweet, but it’s only sweet; brown sugar has the benefit of the tartness and spiciness of the molasses. Try using it for whipped cream, pastries, even tomato sauce — wherever your recipe calls for sugar. [Sooooo agree with this. -- Amelia]
3. Fresh cinnamon: I think fresh spices are intimidating to people because most people don’t own a spice mill or mortar-and-pestle. Never fear! Although it’s great to have a grinder, all you need is a sharp chopping knife to dice your spice. Fresh spices are far, far more flavorful than pre-ground spices. The tiniest bit of fresh cinnamon can add a big punch to almost anything — marinades, rubs, dressings, oatmeal, cookies, sauces. Cinnamon is fantastic in both sweet and savory dishes. If you’re looking for an interesting twist on one of your standby meals, try fresh cinnamon.
4. Sesame oil: We have a tendency to depend on canola oil for everything because it’s cheap. I gave it up for a few reasons: It goes rancid quickly because of the way it’s produced; in comparison to other oils, it has no flavor; it contains trans fats. I use coconut oil for frying and olive oil for dressings, but every once in a while it’s worth it to break out some sesame oil, which is probably my favorite oil for its distinct flavor. It’s great for stir-fry and citrus-y salads, it pairs beautifully with ginger, and it compliments the flavor of cooked mushrooms like nothing else.
5. Different varieties of salt: I knew that there were all different sorts of salts that existed in the world, but until I visited The Meadow in Portland, I had no idea just how many varieties there were. There are Hawaiian volcanic salts, French sea salts culled from pools of water by the ocean; there’s salt harvested from Australia’s Murray River, spicy pepper salts, and, of course, salt from Himalayan mines. Sodium is everywhere, and the environment in which it forms alters its flavor. I’ve taken to using black volcanic salt for grilled chicken — the salt gives the chicken a crispy exterior, but has a smoother flavor than sea salts. Go to your local spice shop and give a few of them a try!
6. 100 percent cocoa powder: This is my big baking expenditure: Callebaut or Valrhona cocoa powder. Once you use it, you’ll never use Hershey’s again. You can tell the difference just by the color – big-brand cocoa powders are a brownish chalk, whereas 100 percent cocoa powder is a deep, rich brown — you know, the brown of cacao. There are even darker cocoa powders you can find in specialty shops; there’s one called Black Onyx that has to be cut with other cocoa powder lest it suck all the moisture out of your cake. When you start using great cocoa, you’ll start using it in everything — one of my favorite uses is in pizza sauce.
What are some of your favorite fixes? Comment below for our communal benefit!