Have you ever noticed that when you're listening to a song you love, turning up its volume makes it that much better? Well, these pantry flavor boosters act as the volume knob to our food. Each of them provides a strong dose of one or more of the five main flavors: umami, sour, sweet, bitter, and salty, allowing you to toggle up or down the overall character of your dish with minimal effort. What better way to keep your meal routine exciting. Explore how to use each of our top flavor booster items.
Sun-dried tomatoes are just that—tomatoes that have been dehydrated either naturally in the sun or with a dehydrator or oven. Evaporating the water from a tomato intensifies its natural flavor, so you can do a lot with a little. You will often find sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (to preserve flavor) or sold plain. Use sun-dried tomatoes in dishes to impart the tart and sweet flavor of a tomato without the water weight of a fresh one. Use it in a vegan risotto that's full of flavor and cooks up creamy, not watery. Or sauté garlic shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes, which make a brilliant appetizer.
Miso is a fermented soybean paste, and there are three main varieties: white, red, and awase.
White miso is pretty palatable to most folks since it's only fermented for a short time period, while red miso is much more intense and pungent in flavor. Awase miso is a blend between the two, so it's the most versatile. All varieties of miso are great for bumping up umami, but as you can imagine, the different types have their best uses. Incorporate white miso in fresher, lighter dishes like miso soup or in recipes where savory ingredients wouldn’t normally be included, such as chocolate chunk miso blondies. Red miso, on the other hand, is perfect for heavier, heartier eating. Make a miso marinade and glaze your pork belly with it or stir it into a lentil quinoa bowl with kale.
Tamarind is sticky, sour, and slightly sweet and is often used in Thai and Indian cuisine as one of the base ingredients in curries and stir-fries. As opposed to other sour foods such as lemons or limes, tamarind imparts a more complex flavor that’s almost caramel-like. You’ll find two general kinds of tamarind paste: unsweetened or sweetened. (Although it's nice to control how much sugar you use, almost all recipes that call for tamarind also call for a sweet ingredient to balance out its flavor.) Apart from its use in food, tamarind is also delicious in drinks such as a tamarind-pineapple margarita or agua frescas.
Fresh is not always best when it comes to mushrooms. The earthy flavor of fresh mushrooms only intensifies when they've been dried so they're an excellent way to achieve an earthy, umami flavor with minimal effort. Among the varieties of dried mushrooms, porcinis and shitakes are common choices thanks to their rich, complex flavors. They do well in stocks and risotto, although you can truly use dried mushrooms in a number of ways. How about grating a few flakes into your quiche or polenta? You could also rehydrate and roughly chop them before adding them to braised beef or other hearty dishes.
The word wasabi refers to the entire plant, but its rhizome is what is most commonly eaten, ground into a paste, and served alongside sushi and sashimi. Wasabi provides a spicy punch that resonates in the nose, rather than the tongue, like chile peppers. Because wasabi requires specific growing conditions, it's more common to find items in the west labeled as "wasabi" to actually contain a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. You can spend the extra money to acquire real wasabi, but horseradish is a closely related plant so its flavor will be similar, regardless. Other popular uses for wasabi include "wasabi-mame," or wasabi coated beans, in Japanese. They're crunchy, spicy, and the perfect appetizer to serve with sake or beer.
Molasses is what results after sugarcane or sugar beets have been boiled down, and the majority of their sugars have been extracted. There are several varieties of molasses which can range in color, sweetness, and nutrition. Light molasses will be sweeter and runnier, while dark and blackstrap molasses have a more complex flavor. It's traditionally used in recipes, such as pumpernickel bread, but can also add dimension to desserts, such as molasses walnut brownies, or also to enhance sauces and baked beans.
Many people are familiar with only a few varieties of salt, kosher, Celtic, Himalayan, and sea salt. But experimenting with some of the lesser-known varieties, such as smoked salt, may just reveal a whole new culinary world to you. This type of salt imparts a delicious flavor that can range from subtle and sweet to bold and ultra-smoky, depending on the type of wood used in the smoking process. Blend it into barbecue sauce, sprinkle it on a gourmet grilled cheese, or use a dash in sweet treats, like pecan pralines.
Fresh anchovies are mild in flavor, but they're commonly found filleted, salt-cured, and packed in oil. This process brings out an intense and briny flavor that's deliciously fishy and is also responsible for softening the anchovies, making them easy to mash into recipes of all sorts. Of course, you can make a versatile anchovy sauce or a simple anchovy compound butter, but you can also lace a Pissaladière with them, which is a savory tart from Provence, France. Or put a spin on your regular aioli by adding an anchovy filet or two. Pair it with thick-cut potato chips and you've got yourself a simple, tasty snack.