4 Finishing Flavor Touches to Make Your Dishes Pop

Close up of human hands zesting a lemon over a white bowl filled with noodles, shrimp, and various green vegetables

When you’ve put time and effort into cooking an elevated meal, the last few steps of the process are crucial. Much like topping off an on-point outfit with the perfect accessories, the final touches on a dish can be a make-or-break moment. Even the simplest dishes can benefit from a well-placed garnish, or a thoughtful final flourish.

For home cooks who know their stuff, finishing touches are about so much more than looks. Yes, they add color and texture, but next-level garnishes go the distance and add a pop of flavor that make mealtimes special, and make your food extra-memorable.

How and when you jazz up your dishes with finishing touches depends on the dish itself: Sometimes it’s best to do it as soon as the food comes off the grill/stovetop or out of the oven, and sometimes it works better to wait once the food is plated. For instance, you can shower a casserole like a baked pasta dish with fresh basil or parsley before portioning it out; for something like chili, it’s better to garnish each individual serving with sour cream, cilantro, shredded cheese, etc.

Looking for more tips and techniques to finish your dishes with style? Here are a few of our favorite ways to stick the landing with garnishes that work as hard as you do:

Flavored Salt

If you’ve ever watched a cooking show, chances are you’ve seen a chef finish off pretty much every dish with a generous pinch of salt. Often they use Maldon, a type of sea salt that has large, beautiful pyramid-shaped crystals that add crunch and a subtle salinity to dishes. But why stop there? Lots of spice companies make flavored salts that add layers of flavor to everything they touch.

Salt with dried peppers or citrus is amazing for finishing roasted chicken or fish; salt with aromatics, like ginger, garlic or shallot add depth to stir fries and soups. Salt with herbs, like rosemary or lavender are incredible sprinkled on creamy cheese, like whipped ricotta or baked feta.

Citrus Zest

Good home cooks know to taste their food through each step of the cooking process. If, at the end of the process, it feels like something is just kind of missing, chances are that the food needs a hit of acid to help create some contrast in the flavor profile. Sometimes, a squeeze of lemon or lime juice can do the trick, but what if you don’t want to add more liquid to the dish?

Enter: citrus zest. The external rind of citrus fruit is packed with its essential oils, meaning that the flavor is very concentrated and intense. Using a microplane grater, zest fine ribbons from the peel of a lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit right over your dish. This quick step, which uses the whole fruit (which we love!), will pay dividends in flavor! Try lemon zest over seafood pasta; lime zest on tacos or enchiladas; orange zest in a homemade vinaigrette; and grapefruit zest on your morning yogurt and granola.

Vinegars & Hot Sauces

Another way to incorporate acidity to balance and enliven your dishes is with a drizzle of vinegar or, if you also want to add some fire, hot sauce. Some delicious vinegars to try include champagne, sherry or red wine, or a thick balsamic vinegar reduction. Just remember that a little goes a long way!

For hot sauces, there are so many to choose from and each has their purpose — sriracha doesn’t actually go with everything! Try tangy, Louisiana-style cayenne hot sauces on fried chicken and seafood; Mexican hot sauces on burritos and tacos; fermented gochujang Korean hot sauce with Asian-style dumplings; and harissa with Middle Eastern or Moroccan dishes, like shakshuka.

Finishing Oils

Another drizzle worth its weight in gold is a finishing oil. Just a touch of a fruity or earthy extra virgin olive oil can pull everything else into place in a dish. Infused oils with flavors like lemon, garlic, or truffle, can also be powerful game changers, especially on simple, rustic food like roasted vegetables.

You can also experiment with making your own oil infusions, by adding olive oil and whatever ingredients you like to a clean jar and letting it sit at room temperature for a week or two. Or, you can “bloom” spices in oil in a small saucepan over low heat; this is essentially allowing the spices to simmer for a few minutes, which releases oils and flavor compounds and transforms regular old oil into a delicious drizzle.

If you’re looking for more kitchen advice and cooking intel, check out some of the other ZENB blog posts, including hot topics like how to set up a chef-worthy mise en place; how to grill like a champ; and why yellow peas are magic. Follow along on ZENB’s Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for more tips on living a balanced life.

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