You know that friend who can throw on an outfit, and with no stress or overthinking it, just looks so effortlessly put together? Goals, we know.
Well, there’s an equivalent to that no-fuss-no-muss-but-always-on-point competency in the kitchen, and learning to get in that zone is one of the most important steps along the journey to becoming a home cook. What we’re talking about is the ability to balance flavors and think through sauces and dishes without a recipe.
Yes, there will always be a place for recipes, especially for more complicated dishes, when using new ingredients, or when you’re trying out foods from cultures you’re unfamiliar with. On the other hand, not having to lug a cookbook off the shelf or needing to look up a recipe online whenever you want to make a salad dressing is pretty rad.
The first step in developing this skill starts with knowing the foundations of flavor, and incorporating them into everything you cook:
Fat: We’re talking oils, butter and ghee, nuts, avocado, and animal products like dairy, eggs, lard, bacon, and schmaltz.
Fats lend luscious texture and flavor to food, and, with the application of heat, can help to create a wide range of textures, from golden and crunchy to falling-apart tender. Fats also help to emulsify sauces and dressings, creating creaminess that coats food in the most pleasant way. Not all fats are created equal; some, like avocado, olive oil, and nuts are more heart-healthy, while others, like butter and lard, are not. But trying to cook without fats is like trying to paint without colors.
Salt: These magical mineral crystals enhance food in profound ways. Want proof? Try a little A/B test with ZENB Pasta: boil some in unsalted water, and some in properly salted water. The difference is so immediately detectable. Salt can also alter and improve the texture of food, especially animal proteins, like chicken, beef, and fish.
There are lots of ingredients that can add saltiness, including, of course, many types of salt: kosher salt, sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, black salt, and so on! There are also fermented products, like soy sauce, tamari, fish sauce, and gochujang, that are sodium-rich and add lots of flavor.
Acid: If you ever feel like your food needs some pep in its step, it’s probably lacking in acidity. Vinegar and citrus juice are the most common types of cooking acid, but wine, kombucha, kimchi, and some dairy products, like yogurt and buttermilk, can also lend acidity.
Heat: Heat doesn’t necessarily have to mean mouth-melting spiciness. It might just be a sprinkle of cracked black pepper on some scrambled eggs, or a drizzle of mustard on a veggie dog. From crushed red pepper flakes on a cheesy pasta bake, to a splash of hot sauce on pizza, to smoky Calabrian chiles on lobster spaghetti, even a subtle dash of heat can be the secret component that can take a dish to the next level.
Now that you’re friendly with these building blocks, you can create a little checklist for everything you make and ask: Does it check all the boxes? Get into the habit of tasting, assessing, and adjusting each of these components until the flavor achieves the balance you’re after.
With this in mind, here are the breakdowns for four different sauces that are really more about ratios and technique than step-by-step recipes:
Vinaigrette: Ask any chef and they’ll tell you the magic vinaigrette number is 3:1 — that is, 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. You can take that and run with it in so many directions, keeping in mind salt and heat as well, like:
- Olive oil + balsamic vinegar + dried oregano + kosher salt
- Walnut oil + lemon juice + white pepper + Maldon
- Sunflower oil + rice wine vinegar + sriracha (heat and salt in one!)
Marinade: Though they often contain similar ingredients to salad dressings, marinades need to go a little harder in the paint with flavor because they’re imparting flavor to food that’s going to be cooked over high heat, like broiled or grilled. We’re fans of a 1:1:1 ratio of fat, acid, and salt, with a heavier hand when it comes to the spices and seasonings. A few for your back pocket:
- Olive oil + lemon juice + za’atar + sea salt
- Avocado oil + orange juice + garlic and onion powder + salt
- Sesame oil + rice wine + sambal oelek + scallions
Pasta Sauce: A classic red pasta sauce is the epitome of hitting the fat/acid/salt/heat combo out of the park. You’ve got olive oil for the fat, garlic for the heat, tomatoes for the acid, and enough salt to pull it all together. Our starter “no recipe” technique is 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes + 1 tablespoon olive oil + 1 garlic clove + salt to taste (start with ¼ teaspoon and go from there).
You can play with other variations, remembering to tweak the flavors to keep it balanced:
- Add more fat with butter, cream, or a non-dairy substitute
- Add more heat with crushed red pepper flakes or Calabrian chile oil
- Add more salt with anchovies, olives, or capers
- Add more acid with balsamic vinegar or red wine
We hope you have fun experimenting and learning in the kitchen! For more cooking tips and hacks check out the ZENB Blog and the ZENB recipe collection, featuring over 150 plant-fueled dishes to try. And follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for daily culinary and wellness inspo!