Building Flavor with Aromatics

Building Flavor with Aromatics


In the world of cooking, flavor is king, and one of the keys to unlocking delicious meals lies in the use of aromatics. Aromatics are the foundation of many great dishes, adding depth, complexity, and richness to any recipe. Let's explore how you can harness the magic of aromatics to take your cooking to new heights.

“From France's mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) to Germany's suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek) to the famous Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking (onion, celery, green bell pepper), almost every cuisine in the world starts with a common, simple, balanced, vegetable base.” Serious Eats – Lindsey Howard Oswalt 

What Are Aromatics?

Aromatics are the unsung heroes of the kitchen. They are simple vegetables and herbs that, when combined and cooked together, create a flavor base that forms the backbone of many dishes. These ingredients include onions, garlic, carrots, celery, peppers, herbs, and more. When sautéed or simmered, aromatics release their natural oils and essences, imparting your dishes with irresistible aroma and flavor.

Using Aromatics in Sauces and Entrees

Aromatics provide depth and complexity to sauces such as marinara, Sunday gravy, and Bolognese. The slow cooking process allows the vegetables to meld with other ingredients in the sauce, infusing them with layers of taste.

In entrees, aromatics add depth and character, from braised meats to vegetable stir-fries. Sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers form the flavor foundation of fajitas and stir-fries, while carrots and celery add sweetness and crunch to hearty soups, stews, and casseroles.

By incorporating aromatics into your cooking, you can turn simple ingredients into extraordinary creations bursting with flavor. Two of the best ways to do this is through an Italian Soffritto or the classic French Mirepoix. While they are very similar, there are subtle differences.

Mirepoix: The Classic French Culinary Foundation

In French cuisine, mirepoix serves as the aromatic base for countless sauces, stocks, and braises. Consisting of diced onions, carrots, and celery, mirepoix provides a subtle yet essential flavor foundation. While the ratios can vary, the combination of these three vegetables remains constant. The key to mirepoix is a slower, more gentle approach to heating the vegetables so that they soften and release flavor without deep browning.

To create a mirepoix, dice two parts of onions to one part each of carrots and celery into uniform pieces. Gently heat butter or oil in a pan, then add the vegetables and cook until softened and aromatic. The resulting mirepoix can be used to flavor stocks, braises, soups, and stews, imparting a delicate sweetness and savory richness to the featured dish.

To see a mirepoix being made, watch as Chef Tom makes one for this Potato Soup -

Soffritto: The Italian Flavor Base

Soffritto, an Italian staple, forms the flavor base of many traditional Italian dishes. It consists of finely diced onions, carrots, and celery sautéed in olive oil until golden and fragrant. Sometimes other ingredients are used as well such as tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and even browned meats. The slow cooking process caramelizes the sugars in the vegetables, resulting in a rich, aromatic base that forms the flavor base of sauces, risottos, and stews. The key here is that the vegetables are gently caramelized.

To make a soffritto, start by finely chopping two parts onions to one part carrots and one part celery. You can also add garlic and peppers to taste. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat, then add the vegetables and cook until softened and golden brown. The resulting soffritto can be used as a flavor enhancer in a wide range of dishes, including marinara sauce, Bolognese, and minestrone soup.

Watch as Chef Tom creates a basic Soffritto in this video making Barbecue Paella –

Holy Trinity: The Cajun Flavor Builder

In Cajun cuisine, Holy Trinity serves as the aromatic base. The Holy Trinity calls for equal parts onion, celery, and bell pepper. The key to Holy Trinity is to use more savory vegetables, green pepper is chosen because it is mild and it is not sweet. Also try to avoid red or sweet onions and focus on yellow or white onions instead.

To create a Holy Trinity, dice equal parts of onion, green pepper, and celery into uniform pieces. Gently heat butter and/or oil in a pan, then add the vegetables and sauté until soft and caramelized. The resulting Holy Trinity can be used to flavor étouffées, Cajun pasta sauces, red beans and rice, gumbos, and jambalaya.

To see a Holy Trinity being used in a recipe, watch as Chef Tom makes one for Blackened Shrimp Étouffée -

You can also experiment with different combinations of aromatics to create unique flavor profiles in your dishes. Don't be afraid to think outside the box and customize your aromatics to suit your taste preferences and dietary restrictions.

In conclusion

Mastering the art of aromatics helps unlock the full potential of your cooking. Whether you're whipping up a simple sauce or preparing a gourmet feast, incorporating soffritto, mirepoix, or other aromatic bases will take your dishes from ordinary to extraordinary. So gather your ingredients, fire up the grill, and let the magic of aromatics transform your dishes into masterpieces. Happy Grilling!

Read more: All About Mirepoix, Sofrito, Battuto, and Other Humble Beginnings – by Lindsey Howald Patton for Serious Eats