Recently, I was thinking about how my confidence in the kitchen has evolved since I first started cooking for myself while studying abroad back in 2010. I remember cooking in the kitchen of my host parent’s home in Paris and being afraid to add basic spices and olive oil to my frozen mixed veggies from Picard. My palate was far less adventurous then and everything to do with cooking was still new to me so I played it super safe. Although health was a major priority, I wasn’t particularly concerned about flavor.
My, how things have changed.
Obviously, I’m still all about that healthy eating life but at this stage of the game, I know that eating healthily does not mean committing to a life of flavorless meals. Over time, I’ve become more comfortable experimenting with ingredients and holding myself to a higher standard of flavor. In retrospect, I wish my late-college/early-20s self would have understood how easily I could have amped up my homemade dishes by incorporating a few key ingredients.
Here are some staple ingredients to keep on hand to add flavor to your meals.
A sprinkle of fresh lemon and/or lime juice goes SUCH a long way to bring out the other flavors of a dish. If you ever taste a dish and you think, “it needs more salt,” but you know that you’ve already added a decent amount of salt to it, it’s probably in need of citrus.
I slept on vinegars in my cooking for a long time. Now I’m realizing how huge of a difference a little acid can make. Apple Cider vinegar is a great to add into the boiling water of leafy greens to bring out their natural earthy tastes. And rice vinegar comes in handy for adding a bit of tangy sweetness.
I used to think that fresh herbs weren’t worth the hassle or the money but I’ve done a complete 180 on this viewpoint. Dried herbs are great when in a pinch or trying to cut back on grocery spending but splurging on fresh herbs is a great way to treat yourself. They instantly make you feel fancy and add flavor that to meals that is incomparable to that of their dried counterparts. Also – they make everything you post on Instagram look prettier.
Freshly cracked pepper (as opposed to pre-ground)
There is really something to be said for fresh spices when you want to add flavor. While it’s much more practical to buy the majority of our spices pre-ground, black pepper is an easy one to buy in its whole form and grind as needed. Trader Joe’s even has a fresh pepper grinder. Worth the investment.
You can find some great spice blends at spice shops, farmers markets, and even Trader Joe’s. Get a bunch that sounds interesting and use them to change up the taste of your standard dishes. Keep a lookout for blends at some of your favorite restaurants or when traveling! They’re a great treat to bring home for yourself.
This one is somewhat obvious but it’s on the list because I’d like to encourage you to experiment with your spices. Go beyond the standard seasonings and play around with things that you’ve never tried before – maybe even something you’ve never heard of. Find a spice shop or a well-stocked spice station at a commercial grocer and challenge yourself to try some new things. If you’re worried about creating your own flavor profiles, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of The Flavor Bible, which allows you to look up any spice or ingredients you’d like to use to find out what pairs well with it. It’s a game-changer.