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Glass bowl filled with lemons and limes

The Building Blocks of Your Dish

Almost anything you cook will involve at least one of the five building blocks:

  1. Acid
  2. Alcohol
  3. Aromatics
  4. Fat
  5. Salt

When I started cooking I really had no idea the roles that these five things play in a dish. They aren’t the star of the show, they’re the backstage crew that really makes the production come together and lets the main characters shine. Bear with me here while I pull out my inner science nerd to explain things:

Acids – Combats sugar to round out a dish’s flavor and penetrates the outer proteins of meat. This opens up the cells of the meat letting it absorb flavors.

Alcohol – Bonds to the water and fat molecules in a dish which lets it carry flavor and aroma.

Aromatics – Add depth and flavor.

Fats – Carry flavor.

Salt – Opens up your taste buds to accept other flavors

Are you seeing a theme here? It’s all about building and balancing flavor. You might also be surprised to find that there’s a lot of different ways to add these five things to your food.

Acid – You can add acid with a squeeze of lemon or lime, vinegars, fresh cranberries, buttermilk etc – Oranges actually contain the same amount of acid as lemons but oranges have a much higher sugar content which creates a completely different sensation when we taste an orange versus a lemon. That’s why we add sugar to lemonade and drink orange juice by itself, it’s sweet and sour enough already. So look for those ingredients that make your face pucker and it will probably do the trick!

Alcohol  – alcohol can be hard liquor, wine or beer. Adding a splash of alcohol can really take your dish to another level. You do have to bear in mind the flavor of the alcohol you’re using, bourbons will add a slight sweetness, and IPA will add bitterness etc. Another important thing to keep in mind is unlike the TV stars glugging a half bottle of wine into their dish, 90% of the time you really don’t want to use more than ½ a cup.

Aromatics – aromatics are garlic, shallots, fresh herbs and the revered trinity of vegetables: carrots, celery, and onion. These last three combined together are called Mirepoix (pronounced Meer-pwah) and are used in everything from making a stock, to braising meat in French and American cooking.

Fats – fats can come from cooking meat (think bacon fat left in the skillet), oils such as coconut, olive, grapeseed, canola and vegetable and dairy products like heavy cream and butter. Fats tend to solidify when cold and become very runny when warmed.

Salt – salt can obviously be added straight from your kitchen shaker or you can add salt to your dish through cheese, cured meats, olives, anchovies, and capers. Understanding that these ingredients are salty will help you out a lot. Whenever I make a mac n’ cheese sauce I always wait to salt it until after the cheese has been added since the cheese itself contains a significant amount of salt.

The best way to understand these five things is to start cooking with them. Pick one or two things at a time and start adding them to your dish. Making a spaghetti sauce? Try sauteeing some onions and garlic before adding the rest of your ingredients. The next time you’re cooking a pot roast, pour a half of cup of your favorite alcohol in with the meat. Try things a little at a time and you’ll start to get a feel for how they enhance your dish. Need some ideas? Look through my recipes and you’ll find I use one or more of these ingredients in most of them. Happy Cooking!

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