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What Is Flavor Layering?

04 Oct 2019

Three silver tablespoons holding an asssortment of spices on a table next to parsle leaves, red chili pepper, and lemongrass

Flavor layering is all about pairing flavors together to expand and deepen them in a dish with meats, vegetables, spices, seasonings, and liquids. At Bolay, we’re all into layers of flavor, from the base of your bol to the add-ons and sauces that take its flavor over the top. So, you know flavor layering is a subject near and dear to our hearts.

You don’t have to be a 5-star chef to understand the basics of flavor layering. Here’s a breakdown of what it means and how it makes food taste better.

Flavor Layering 101

At its root, flavor layering is something that everyone does, from the five-star restaurant chef to the person who has just one signature dish they make to impress. In simple terms, it means adding different but complementary flavors to a dish to create a dish with depth beyond its basic ingredients.

For example, when you add sautéed onions to a dish, that’s one flavor. What if you add some garlic, shallots, and thyme to your onions? That adds extra dimension or flavor layers to the dish you are creating.

Flavor layering has become a trendy buzzword, due to so many cooks and chefs going beyond traditional flavors and recipes to build complex, new flavor parings into every dish. This means you can apply flavor layering principles to anything you cook.

The basic concepts below will get you started on flavor layering. After that, the only limit is your imagination.

Salt, Seasonings, and Spices for Extra Flavor

Even if your recipe doesn’t call for it, make sure every ingredient you add to a dish is well seasoned. Sautéed vegetables and meats that you add to a dish should get a pinch of salt. You don’t have to put in enough salt to make it taste salty, just a pinch to bring out the natural flavor. When you salt a dish at the beginning of its cooking process, the flavors are enhanced. If you salt it later, it just tastes salty.

But, adding salt is not the only way to season your dish. Consider what other spices would go well with the ingredients in your dish.

To do this, you will have to consider the finished product, how you want it to taste, and what spices might give you the flavor you want. When not sure what to add, try a little garlic. Its earthy flavors can really deepen the taste of your dish. Use stronger spices such as nutmeg, paprika, or cumin sparingly, and only when you are sure it will help. Each seasoning you incorporate will add an extra layer of flavor.

Add Flavor with Vegetables

The vegetables you add, even if meat is the main ingredient, can have a huge impact on the final flavors of the dish. So, while it’s great to experiment, be careful when adding vegetables that the recipe doesn’t call for. Your best bet is to add vegetables that have a similar flavor to those in the recipe so you can subtly alter the flavor without going overboard.

For example, onions, leeks, and shallots all add an oniony flavor to your dish. So, you can safely use them as substitutes for each other, and give your dish a subtle twist. Shallots and red onions are sweeter, leeks have a more “green” flavor. And Vidalia onions are much sweeter. When working with a recipe that calls for onions, try adding one or two of these types to layer in new flavors.

Layering with Liquid

The cooking liquid you use makes a big difference in your flavor layering. In general, never cook with water unless you are boiling pasta. Almost every other dish can be made with stock, either vegetable, chicken, or beef.

Vegetable and chicken stock will give the dish a milder flavor, while beef stock is better for intense flavors. Water is a neutral flavor and can rob the ingredients of their flavor. Stock has its own taste that can influence the other ingredients you use.

When you gain confidence, you can also try wine, beer, soda, or whiskey to layer flavors into a dish. Do this only when you’re reasonably sure it will work, but that extra shot of taste can really layer in the flavor.

Drop in a Little Acid

Acid is a great way to wake up the flavor of a dish, especially when added just before the dish is finished or served. Try adding a little lime juice to your chili right before you serve it, and see what happens. Citrus juice is the most common acid used, although vinegar can also enliven a dish. Acid wakes up taste buds that might otherwise remain dormant.

The easiest way to add a little acid to your dish is to grate a little lime or lemon zest into it and let it cook about a minute or two. This is just long enough to allow the zest to release its oils throughout the dish. You’ll notice your dish has an entirely different profile.

These layer principles apply to building a bol at Bolay, only we’ve made it easier for you. Just choose your base, veggies, and protein, then layer in flavor with add-ons and sauces. Soon you’ll be flavor layering like a pro.


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