Layering Flavors in the Plant Based Kitchen

small jars of vegan ingredients

Whether you're just starting out with plant-based cooking or have been vegan for years, there is one universal truth: flavor is everything! So let's talk about how we go about layering flavors in the plant based kitchen to make those veggies shine.

The Basics

Just like cooking with ANY ingredient, vegetables thrive on the basics of salty, sweet, sour, and spice. However, how vegetables react to these things is much different than the way animal products do. So often people get consumed with trying to "make something taste like x" that they forget it isn't the same. Not at all. And so I give to you my list of Layering Basics for your plant based kitchen. It goes like this:

  • Ferments, Funks and Salts
  • Dried and Powdered
  • Smoke
  • Spices and Spicey

Ferments, Funks and Salts

What is fermentation? The quick answer is this: it's the breaking down of one substance (like starches or sugars) into a simpler substance (like acids or alcohol). Why do people ferment? To preserve food. Why do I ferment? To get to the funk!

One of the fastest ways to add complexity of flavor, is by enriching your food with funk. When I say funk, I mean the deep, raw, makes-your-nose-do-funny-things kind of flavor that turns to magic when paired well. Because when we ferment food we change one thing into another, the state of that food is forever morphed into a new flavor. Think wine as opposed to grapes, or yogurt as opposed to milk. When we start to play with fermented ingredients, we can add complexity and depth to otherwise simple foods.

I am a big fan of Lacto-fermentation, which is where natural bacterias break down the sugars in the food to form lactic acid (like pickles and sauerkraut). It is the simplest of fermentation processes because it doesn't require hyper-sterilization. In fact, lacto-fermentation takes on the natural bacterias of your surroundings, giving the food an actual terroir that is unique to where it was fermented.

Lacto-fermentation is often started with an ingredient and salt. But there's more! Once you have a freshly fermented food, you can use that as a starter for another. Geek out with me for a moment. Imagine fermenting an ingredient with another fermented ingredient. Think of the complexity and depth of flavor that this creates. Then the salt and fermented juices of that ferment, can start another, and another. This process of funkifying can transform a simple mushroom into a Magical Maple Fermented Mushroom. What was once a humble mushroom can now enlighten something as simple as a bowl of rice and Crispy Tofu.

Because fermented ingredients tend to be salty, I like to use them in place of some of the salt in my recipes, or mixed in with salt, like this Kimchi Sea Salt. Tamari and Shoyu (Soy Sauce) are also a great example of fermented ingredients we can use in place of salt for a more layered flavor.

Dried and Powdered

There is complimenting flavor and then there is enhancing it. When we dehydrate (dry) an ingredient, we remove all of the moisture and intensify its flavor. If we then take that dried ingredient and pulverize it, the powder becomes the pure essence of flavor of that ingredient. I will often use powdered versions of dried or freeze-dried ingredients to give a powerful punch of flavor. This is different than when I want a more delicate or mellow flavor from the same ingredient. Take, for example, these two recipes. One is a recipe for my favorite Toasted Rice and Miso Soup Broth, which uses miso in it's raw and more delicate form. The other is my recipe for my Miso Crusted Avocado Tacos, which use dehydrated miso powder in combination with pulverized fritos corn chips. This highly concentrated miso flavor stands up to the heartier flavors of a taco.

Freeze-dried ingredients have an entirely different type of concentration. I love to grind these and add them to their fresh counterparts (ie: freeze dried corn pulverized and sprinkled over fresh grilled corn, or freeze dried strawberries puréed with fresh strawberries into a vinaigrette).

Smoke

There seems to be a psychological connection for people with the smell and taste of meat cooked over a fire. So what happens when we remove the meat? We replace it with smoke. Smoke evokes the flavors of cooking over open flame and can mimic traditionally meat-based foods like bacon or ham. I add smoke in direct form, like in this Homemade Sweet Potato Bacon, where I smoke the ingredients. But I can also use things like smokey chipotle chiles, as in this Smokey Chipotle Split Pea Soup. Remember now that we're talking about layering. Let's use a layering technique with a simple vegetable like cabbage. If we ferment that cabbage with a dried element (dried juniper berry and powder) and a smoked element (smoked sea salt), the result is a simple ingredient with deep, complex flavor. Check out the recipe for Smoked Sauerkraut the next time you make potatoes.

Spices and Spicey

A well stocked Plant-based kitchen is never without a plentitude of spices. It may seem an expense each time you add a new spice to your collection, but it means that anything you want to make is always at your fingertips. I absolutely love it when I discover a new recipe or want to recreate a flavor I tasted and know I can reach into my spice cabinet and find most of the ingredients. Ok, full disclosure...I am a bit of a spice addict. However, spices are part of what can take an everyday potato and turn it into these Down and Dirty Masala Smashed Potatoes. Here is a short list of my top 10 must-have spices:

  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Black Mustard Seed
  • Cinnamon
  • Star Anise
  • Turmeric
  • Sesame
  • Black Cardamom
  • Smoked Paprika
  • Peppercorn

Don't Confuse Spice with Spicey

Spices are things that can flavor your food, but do not add heat. Chile peppers add heat and are an entirely different animal. When you start cooking with chiles, you will learn that they can add everything from fruitiness to earthiness in your food. Dry chiles range from sweet to earthy to having an almost raisin flavor, adding a subtle slow heat. You can see how I use dried chiles in this Winter Squash Pozole recipe. Of course, every dry chile has it's fresh counterpart ready to step up and pack all the punch! You can read all about the different types of chiles here. The important take away here is that chile peppers boost the flavor of your other ingredients. They pair well with sweet and savory and can shift the energy of a dish.

Keep Checking Back

As you explore on my site, you will see the components of what I talk about here sprinkled throughout the recipes. When creating your own recipes, keep coming back and checking in to the this page. Make sure you've got elements of these plant-based basics to add layers of flavor and bring your cooking to the next level!

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