Flavors are extracted from ingredients every time we cook. Cooking oils, butter and hot water are commonly used during the course of cooking to extract flavors from herbs and spices. Extracts from vegetables like onion and celery can also be used to season food.
Herbs placed on top of a roast or chicken before cooking will have their flavors extracted by the steam produced from the heat of cooking. The substances that make up the flavor or “essence” of the herbs are actually extracted from the herbs and released into the food. Sometimes we detect the release of these substances into the air by the delicious smells of the kitchen.
Spices and herbs are used as seasonings for adding interesting aromas and flavors to foods and beverages. The seasoning agents that are added to a dish usually become part of the dish, but not always. For example, bay leaf is a herb that is typically used in whole form. A single bay leaf lends enough aroma and flavor to any recipe calling for it. Hot liquids that contact the bay leaf during cooking extract the aromatic and flavorful substances from the herb. Once the dish is cooked thoroughly and ready to serve, the bay leaf is removed. Bay leaves are hard and stiff, so they remain whole even during long cooking times. Chewing bay leaves is not recommended because they are brittle and the edges are sharp enough to cut tongues and gums.
Vegetables can also be used as flavoring agents and they often become part of the food dish itself. Onion and celery are two common vegetables that are used for their flavors. Dried minced onion and celery salt that can be found on the spice shelves of any grocer are two examples of these vegetables being used as flavorings, seasonings or spices. While these spice jars are nice to have on the shelf just in case fresh veggies aren’t available, it’s more appealing and probably healthier to use whole, fresh vegetables.
In the kitchen we can use the fresh vegetables themselves as seasonings, instead of relying on processed vegetables that have been dehydrated and reduced into flakes or pulverized into powder. A poultry stuffing recipe illustrates how to use fresh onions and celery for their flavor.
To make a flavorful oil that can be used in any number of dishes, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or canola oil in a large skillet on medium to medium-high heat. Finely chop half an onion and a stalk of celery and add to the oil once hot. Stir constantly for five minutes or so, just until the vegetables become translucent. If desired, a clove or two of garlic can be added for more flavor. Don’t cook the vegetables until they turn brown or they will become bitter, especially the garlic.
The vegetables can be strained from the oil if they are not to become part of the dish. Otherwise, use the flavored oil as is and continue cooking with it.