12 Tips to Boost Healthy Food Flavor
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
LifeTime WeightLoss in Healthy Cooking, Healthy Cooking, Jennifer Wannen, flavor, healthy food ideas, seasoning

When we adopt the Healthy Way of Eating, we leave behind the world of high-octane, processed food products - and the distorted effects they've left on our taste buds. We learn to appreciate the natural flavor of real food.

The fact is, once we settle into a new routine of cooking, the creativity starts to unfold. Experimentation in the kitchen leads to variety. Exploration opens up a whole new world of options. Fresh, natural food becomes more satisfying. We even begin to prefer it actually.... 

Pretty soon, we look back and can’t understand why we let ourselves miss out on genuinely good food for so long.

But what does the transition from store-bought packaged products to succulent home cooking look like? Check out these simple cooking choices that enhance healthy food's natural flavor. 

1. Invest in higher quality “basics.”

First things first, as they say. Good recipes begin with good quality ingredients. That goes double for those ingredients playing center stage in a meal.

A chicken dinner, for example, is always going to be more about the chicken than any add-ons. The better quality the chicken, the better the dish.

This principle applies for any recipe. See for yourself, and take a week to do some strategic taste-tasting at home. Cook a conventional egg and a free-range, organic egg. Notice the difference in visual appeal. (Don’t underestimate the power of aesthetics!) Smell and taste the difference. Do the same with a conventional versus pastured chicken. Then expand to the likes of conventional versus pastured butter as well as iceberg lettuce versus an organic spring mix or heritage lettuce.

Continue your comparative testing over time. You’re learning which versions are healthier (pdf). What might surprise you is how often they’re more flavorful, too. 

2. Experiment with different cooking or preparation methods.

If you’re used to eating meats or vegetables with processed sauces and gravies, you might find your old cooking methods don’t work anymore. Boiled skinless chicken breast, for example, doesn’t taste very good on its own, and steamed cauliflower can get old when eaten plain.

As various as healthy foods are, so are the most flavor-saving cooking methods. Instead of skinning chicken breast and boiling it, leave the skin on, and bake with some minced garlic, sea salt and fresh rosemary. Roast the cauliflower florets with your favorite heat stable oils or fats, some garlic and Parmesan. 

3. Design your own dry seasoning combos.

Does sticker shock keep you away from “designer” seasoning blends? Approach them with the intent of investigation. Check out the ingredient list, and try the same or similar combination by creating it yourself at home.

Instead of paying a premium for the pre-packaged blend at your grocery store, buy small amounts of the ingredients you want to try at food co-ops. The ideas you get from the designer blends can encourage you to try seasonings you perhaps never would’ve considered like lavender with different salt and pepper varieties for a grilled steak. (And, yes, there’s even an amazing diversity of taste in the array of salt and pepper you can buy!) 

4. Taste the difference with fresh herbs.

For many herbs, fresh tastes infinitely better. Fresh sage and rosemary offer considerably more aroma and flavor to your poultry than dried when you want to really impress yourself or your guests (Thanksgiving dinner, anyone?).

Fresh chives in scrambled eggs or fresh dill on wild salmon likewise offer more potent flavor. To balance convenience/cost with culinary effect, you can create the best of both worlds by maintaining a store of dried/freeze-dried herbs and spices and buying only the fresh herbs you most enjoy in certain recipes. For the most budget-friendly option, grow a small herb garden that replenishes itself.

5. Make it saucy.

There’s so much more to sauces than Grandma’s gravy. Think reductions, tapenade, pesto, salsas, cream sauces, relishes, chutneys, dressings and other healthy, homemade condiments. There are whole cookbooks devoted just to homemade and low-carb sauces. Consider it one of your best healthy cooking investments because the ideas will allow for infinite variety in your menus.

Pressed for time? Use a weekend to make a larger batch of a few sauces and freeze in ice cube trays to use one meal at a time. 

6. Add alcohol.

Sure, what’s in your glass may make any meal more palatable! What we mean here, however, is the subtle but rich depth certain kinds of alcohol can add to many dishes.

Think along the lines of richer wines for meat based sauces like a splash of good red wine for red meat stews or Marsala for chicken dishes. Likewise, certain hard liquors like bourbon can add an interesting nuance to many meat or heartier vegetable recipes.

7. Find a better use for fruit juice.

While fruit’s high sugar content means it should play more of a supporting role in a healthy diet, adding fruit as a “highlight” to dishes or using the juice to liven up recipes is always a good option.

Sure, downing a full glass of orange juice is akin to dropping a sugar bomb in your body, but a tablespoon of freshly squeezed juice (or, even better, zest!) can brighten the taste of sauces and salads. Beyond the common spritz of lemon or lime, try to experiment with the likes of pomegranate juice or seeds, orange, tart apple, or pineapple.  

8. Break out the healthy oils.

If you’ve ever spent time in the oil section of your grocery store, co-op or specialty market, you’ve likely been surprised by the variety out there. How many of us have actually tried more than a few healthy options? 

Unrefined nut oils, for example, can be a delicious alternative to olive oil in salads. Look for varieties packaged in dark as opposed to clear glass to maximize freshness. For meats, use heat stable fats like coconut or palm oil (sustainable varieties are available), with an “acid” of choice (e.g. lemon juice, vinegar, etc.) and herbs/spices to make delicious marinades for whatever you’re cooking up.

9. Go for good fats.

Sometimes we hear so many misleading messages blasting fat on the health front that we forget how flavorful (and healthy) good fat can be. In the context of The Healthy Way of Eating, we can enjoy the satisfaction of actually eating poultry skin or choosing the more flavorful (and economical) dark meats.

Likewise, adding olive oil, avocado or uncured bacon can make any salad or cooked vegetable much more satisfying. 

10. Use nuts to kick up the crunch factor.

Sometimes our perception of taste is influenced by texture.

Imagine what adding some chopped, lightly roasted pecans could do for a mixed greens and pomegranate seed salad? What about a handful of toasted pine nuts in a dish of zucchini “pasta” with rich olive oil, sauteed tomato, garlic and crushed basil? 

11. Turn up the “heat.”

If you can handle the heat, by all means kick your cooking up a notch with peppers and spices. Think along the lines of poblano peppers (even for the fainter of taste buds), mild chili peppers, peperoncinis, hot chilis, jalapenos, and spices like cayenne pepper, chili powder, curry, and paprika. 

12. Let meat and veggies complement each other. 

While we’re not arguing for carb-heavy casseroles, there’s something about the mix of textures and savory flavorings that says comfort food. It’s the beauty behind chili, heartier soups, stews and stir-fry.

If "hot dish" is your thing, however, adapt your old favorite recipes with the likes of healthier homemade sauces and zucchini or spaghetti squash “noodles” or cauliflower “rice.” 

Thanks for reading. Looking for more ideas on how to bring out the flavor in your healthy fare? Check out our staff’s favorite cookbooks, or talk with a club dietitian today.

Written by Jennifer Wannen, Content Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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