Find the flavor: bank browned bits, fats, bones and liquids to boost your next kitchen creation

September 17th, 2019
boost flavors with bones and broths - recipe here for pork chops with pomegranates
Browned bits, along with bones and great broths can boost the flavors in your favorite dishes. Try pork chops with cherry or pomegranate juice. Photo: Getty Images.

While I grew up, my father seemed always to keep a can of what he called “bacon grease” in the refrigerator. It wasn’t used much for further cooking — my father’s intention — merely topped off by him more or less weekly. For her cooking (that is to say, nearly all the family’s food), my mother found its flavor too strong, so she rarely sought it out. She was Belgian; she loved butter.

But I learned an important cooking lesson from my dad: Save the flavor. My own refrigerator and freezer are replete with flavors rescued from previous cooking. I don’t keep bacon grease, but I keep the idea. I want to tell you about finding flavors and banking them, not just for times ahead, but also for the right nows of cooking today.

Fats

Fat — widely eschewed but universally loved — is one great flavor carrier. It itself has flavor (sometimes too much, as in bacon drippings), but always carries the flavors of any dish in which it is found, like so many wee ball bearings, right onto and along the palate.

When a recipe says, say, after you’ve done browning some meat in a skillet, “Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil,” keep back those drippings in a can or jar. The fat of the meat that is there, or the now-flavored olive or vegetable oil, will add that much more flavor to the next batch of fried or sautéed things.

If a recipe asks you to render duck fat from, for example, a breast before continuing to pan-sear or roast it, never waste that fat. Have you seen the price of even a small jar of duck fat?

Liquids

Likewise, how many gallons of flavor do we pour down the drain without a thought?

I have assembled a few cassoulets since the first of the year, saving back all the liquids in which I have cooked either the beans or pieces of pork before building the final dish. Each preparation of a cassoulet stipulates using some of that cooking liquid in the final step of heating the thing through, but only two or three cups. That means that a couple of quarts of well-flavored bean and meat broths are always left over.

So, I save them. The first cassoulet’s liquids became the next cassoulet’s beginning broths (with, yes, a bit of more water added, yet far less than what I would have had to use if I had started completely afresh), and so on. By the fourth cassoulet of 2019, I was sneaking sips of my boiling liquids alone, just for their intense flavor.

So, save back your cooking liquids for further use down your kitchen’s road: those from boiling pasta or rice, poaching fish, or steaming vegetables.

However, I’ve also found that after-liquids from steaming in bamboo (such as steamed vegetables or Asian buns, or hard-cooked eggs) have too much woody taste to be good for a next time. If you are looking to save steaming liquids, use a steel steamer instead.

(A secret: stockpile corn cobs to make a delicious broth that can shame plain water for many services.)

Dem bones

It goes without saying that collecting some foods’ scraps abets further flavor. In a turn of phrase, this is stock talk.

I rarely use canned or Tetra-packed broths or stocks, favoring making my own. To that end, I keep many packets of meat and fowl carcasses or bones in my freezer.

I know many folk who do the same; it’s the “save the Honey Baked ham bone” for pea soup camp.

But, it appears, more people toss away much other flavor in the form of vegetable trimmings, those, for example, from carrots, tomatoes, waxy potatoes, and celery; the stems from parsley, cilantro and other herbs; broken-off mushroom stems; and yellow onion skins. Yes, onion skins; their brown color adds the same to stock, plus deep onion flavor.

Browned bits

The main reason that so many recipes stipulate, after a quick sauté or browning, “being sure to scrape up any browned bits” is simple: that’s where gobs of flavors are.

Fancy French for this is the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that explains the caramelization of proteins and sugars in browned foods of any sort (cookies, steaks, caramel itself, and roasted vegetables, for instance). Leave behind burnt stuff, but not browned stuff.

And when scraping up any browned bits, deglaze — that’s another fancy French term — with liquids that themselves carry flavor. Water works, but so do most fruit juices, wine or beer (even day-old, or cubes of either, frozen), or, of course, any of those liquids such as pasta or bean cooking water that you’ve kept back.

See?

Pork Manhattan

This recipe takes its name from the cocktail, not the New York borough. It mimes the drink’s flavors (except, of course, for the cream). Most, if not all of the alcohol gets burned away in the heat. Serves 4

Ingredients

4 boneless pork chops

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup Bourbon

1/3 cup cherry-pomegranate juice, or a mix of cherry and pomegranate juices

1/4 cup cream

Directions

Season chops with salt and pepper. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add chops and cook, turning once, until browned on each side and cooked through. Transfer chops to a plate. Add Bourbon to the skillet; stir to scrape up browned bits. Cook until bourbon has reduced, 1-2 minutes. Add cherry-pomegranate juice; cook, stirring often, until a thick syrupy liquid. Stir in cream; cook to reduce slightly, about 2 minutes. Return chops and any accumulated juices to the skillet; simmer to blend flavors, 1 minute.

Reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

 

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.