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In cooking, what does “layering flavors” mean?

In today’s world where health fads dictate that everyone ought to be conscious of his sodium intake, many cooks have developed the habit of adding no seasoning to the food during cooking. Instead, salt and pepper shakers are placed on the table and each diner adds salt and pepper to his portion. I suppose the procedure is beneficial for finicky eaters including those who measure the salt that goes into their food lest too much salt makes them put on the dreaded extra weight. As if. To my mind, that is more likely to happen by wolfing down large portions of food rather than using salt ONLY AS NEEDED.

The thing about adding salt to already cooked but still unsalted food prevents the salt from being absorbed by the ingredients and the flavor — the saltiness — only touches the surface of the dish (don’t think of “surface” in the physical sense) which, for me, just ruins it. Cooking, after all, is a lot of chemistry and part of that chemistry is to allow the ingredients to interact with the seasonings for a reasonable period of time. Ever wondered why bacon is so very, very tasty? And ham too? It’s seasoning PLUS TIME for the seasoning to permeate the meat and do things to it. Of course, that’s “curing” rather than bona fide cooking but seasoning works pretty much the same way in relation to meat.

In short, I’m not afraid of salt. The body needs sodium to function normally, for goodness’ sakes. I’m not afraid of all other seasonings either — whether spicy, hot and spicy, sweet, sour, nutty, smokey and everything in between. And I like to add them at various stages of the cooking. That is what is known as “layering flavors.” The seasonings are added in layers (again, don’t think of “layers” in the physical sense), little by little, for optimal effect.

Let’s have some examples. Last night, I was cooking a chicken dish (which, by the way, I was so scared to eat lest my allergy started acting again).

I browned the chicken in butter, adding salt, pepper, a few other spices and some herbs almost as soon as the meat hit the pan.

When the chicken pieces were lightly browned around the edges, I added the vegetables. Then, I added more salt and pepper. And more herbs. By the time everything was cooked through, I added sauce. After allowing everything to simmer for five minutes, I tasted everything and adjusted the seasonings again.

How many times did I season the dish? Three. Four, if you consider that the sauce is seasoned too. That’s four layers of flavor in one dish.

The trick is to season little by little. DO NOT add too much seasoning, especially salt, at the start of the cooking. Just add more, as needed, as the cooking progresses.

Another example. I was making empanada filling earlier today. A whole chicken was cooked a day earlier and allowed to sit and cool slowly in the broth. When the chicken was cooked, I added all the usual things I add when making broth — salt, a whole onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, a carrot, peppercorns, bay leaves… the works. And the chicken sat in that very flavorful broth overnight. So, you can imagine how the chicken meat tasted by the time I lifted it out of the broth.

So, I flaked the well-seasoned chicken and tossed it with chopped onion, shredded mozzarella and cheddar.

I tasted the mixture, additional salt was unnecessary but the mixture could use more depth in flavor. In went some chili flakes, fennel seeds and some tarragon. See, when you talk about layering flavors, you’re not just referring to saltiness, sweetness, sourness or hotness. You’re also talking about a myriad of other flavors found in seeds, leaves, fruits, flowers, stamens of flowers, barks…

Of course, there are dishes and cooking preparations where you can’t apply the layering of flavors principle. Baking cakes and pastries is one example. Everything has to in before the baking begins.

If you’re using a slow cooker or a pressure cooker, you can’t keep peeking and tasting and making adjustments. Much as I love the slow cooker for its convenience and the pressure cooker for its economical use, I rarely use them to cook complete dishes. Mostly, I use them to tenderize something that usually takes a long time to cook. Like beef tripe. Or ox tongue. I put tough cuts of meat in the slow cooker or pressure cooker with a minimal amount of seasoning — kinda like the equivalent of what I’d normally add during the first stage of cooking. Then, I finish the dish on the stovetop.

So, there. See, cooking isn’t always about recipes. Half of the time, it’s about techniques and tricks. And as you learn more and more of those techniques and tricks, recipes become secondary. You can taste a dish in some fancy restaurant or on someone else’s dinner table and be able to deconstruct it in your head. And that will enable you to replicate it at home.