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The First Step to Great Flavor

A versatile base of aromatic herbs and vegetables builds flavor in sauces, soups, and stews in every cuisine

Great flavor begins with simple ingredients. Here, it's a sauté of carrots, onions, celery, and ham—a classic combination the French call mirepoix.

by James Peterson

fromFine Cooking
Issue 31

You've probably noticed that most recipes for sauces, soups, and stews begin by asking you to cook one or more vegetables and occasionally a little meat in a small amount of fat. These basic mixtures go by different names in different cuisines, but they always play an important part in the character of a dish. A French mirepoix, an Italian soffritto, or a Portuguese refogado will each provide a foundation of flavor that will ultimately distinguish a dish from a similar one in another cuisine. It's helpful to know what goes into these basic mixtures and how and when to use them if you want to learn to improvise a sauce, soup, or stew without a recipe, or give a particular international twist to a simple dish.

Aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices form classic flavor bases

In most European-influenced cuisines, classic flavor bases are made up of a mixture of three or four aromatic vegetables, sometimes herbs, and occasionally a small bit of meat. Asian cuisines often add freshly ground spices to their own combinations of aromatic vegetables and herbs.

Aromatic vegetables, which give off deep, well-rounded flavors and pleasing aromas when cooked, are the core of flavor bases. The classic French flavor base known as mirepoix (pronounced meer-pwah) is a combination of chopped onions, celery, and carrots made with twice as much onion as carrot and celery (see What size pieces should I cut?). The Italian soffritto (pronounced soh-FREE-toh) varies from region to region, and may be as simple as a chopped onion and a little garlic, or, like mirepoix, may be a mixture of vegetables that might include fennel. Italian cooks often like to use flavorful meats (especially pancetta or prosciutto) in the soffritto to give a hearty dish a deeper, richer flavor. A Catalan sofregit (soh-frah-ZHEET) starts with a slow sauté of onions in olive oil and is then enriched with tomatoes. A Spanish (or Castilian, to distinguish it from Catalan) sofrito, used to flavor classic rice dishes and rich braises, will usually include onions and garlic, and sometimes peppers, like its Portuguese equivalent, refogado (rah-foh-GAH-doh); tomatoes are often added.

Aromatic herbs and spices complete the flavor base. French cooks occasionally add a bay leaf or a little fresh thyme to their mirepoix. And it's not unusual to find a leaf or two of sage or a few sprigs of parsley in an Italian soffritto.

When you move on to the Eastern cuisines, you'll notice that cooks from non-European traditions work with a wider and more varied palette of aromatic vegetables and spices. A typical Indian base mixture for a curry may contain onion and garlic, hot chiles, and chopped ginger. And just before liquid is added, sophisticated hand-blended curry powders are added and quickly sautéed to release their fragrance. Indonesian cooks have an especially exotic base mixture—called bumbu—that includes shrimp paste, powdered galangal (an aromatic rhizome similar to ginger), and kemiri (or candlenut), an oily nut that gives a particularly unctuous texture to Indonesian stews. Thai cooks make one of several types of curry pastes for their flavor bases. The pastes are made by grinding together aromatics like shallots, lemongrass, chiles, and kaffir lime leaves.

What size pieces should I cut?
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Fine dice for a quick-cooking sauce.

The size you cut the individual components of a flavor mixture depends on how long the mixture will cook and if it will be puréed. The French make a big deal out of demanding that a classic mirepoix be cut into very tiny dice (called brunoise)—a handy way of torturing beginning culinary students. But there's actually a sound reason for chopping mirepoix into small pieces for a quick-cooking dish: the smaller pieces will release their flavor more quickly during the short cooking time. On the other hand, mirepoix for a pot of long-simmering stock can consist of very large pieces of vegetables—onions cut in half, whole celery ribs, and carrots in chunks.

  • A medium cut for soups and braises.
  • Chunks for long-cooking stews.

For the same reason, other cuisines call for mincing aromatics like ginger and lemongrass that are too fibrous to eat in large bites; but for a long-simmering dish, those aromatics might be left whole and slightly crushed, and then removed after cooking. Size also affects the look of a dish; if you're making a light sauce and you don't intend to purée it, you'll want to cut your aromatics in small, neat pieces for an attractive final presentation.

How a flavor base is cooked will vary by region
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James Peterson browns chicken pieces first and then makes the sauce in the same skillet, maximizing flavor as well as efficiency.

A flavor base is usually added to a dish at the very beginning of cooking. Typically, it is cooked in fat until the flavors are released, but subtle differences in cooking methods can change how a flavor base affects a dish. Usually, especially in European cooking, flavorful base mixtures are gently "sweated" before liquids are added. The distinction between sweating and sautéing is an important one, because sautéing, with its emphasis on high heat and rapid cooking, is designed to seal the flavor of the vegetables within the vegetables, while sweating, which is cooking over low heat, is designed to get the vegetables to release their flavor so that it ultimately ends up in the surrounding liquid. Traditional directions for sweating vegetables call for covering the pan so the moisture and aroma from the vegetables is entrapped and the vegetables don't have a chance to brown. But for some dishes, it's useful to first cook the vegetables gently, covered, and then remove the lid and allow the vegetables to slowly caramelize before adding liquid. This caramelization gives soups and sauces a richer and more complex flavor and a deeper color.

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You don't always need a fat. Charring vegetables in a dry skillet is the first step in a Mexican tomato sauce.

The type of fat used to cook the base mixture will also influence the final flavor and sometimes even the texture of a dish. The French generally cook mirepoix in butter, but country cooks may improvise according to their own traditions. A Provençal cook, for example, will probably use olive oil (and add garlic to the ingredients), a cook in Gascony might cook the vegetables in duck or goose fat, and an Alsatian cook may use lard. Asian cooks might use coconut or peanut oil, and Indians are known for their flavorful ghee (toasted clarified butter). While Italians also use whatever fat is most abundant in their region (butter, olive oil, lard, or even the rendered fat from a prosciutto or pancetta rind), Mexican cooks often don't use any fat at all. Instead they dry-roast garlic, onions, and chiles on a comal, a kind of flat, heavy roasting pan. The comal gives the vegetables a distinctive and delicious toasted flavor.

Once the flavor foundations in a dish have been laid down, the cook can build the kind of dish she wants—a stew, a soup, a sauce, or a braise. Adding liquids like coconut milk or chicken stock can enhance the dish's flavors one step further, and the final dish will have the distinctive character of a particular cuisine.

Change the flavor base, change the chicken

 The three recipes that follow each use a flavor base to make a unique sauce. The chicken is sautéed first, and then it finishes cooking in the sauce. We've used the same technique for cooking the chicken in all three recipes to illustrate how much a change in a flavor base can affect a final dish. The Classic French Chicken in White Wine Sauce starts with a classic French mirepoix, the Indian Chicken with Coconut Milk uses uses chiles, curry, and ginger, and the Chicken with Mexican Charred Tomato Sauce starts with a sauce made from vegetables that are charred in a cast-iron pan with no fat. Use any one of these recipes as a starting point to try other flavor bases.

Photos: Ben Fink

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