what makes food taste so good? salt? yes. oil? yes. but it’s more than that – those are just components used to create flavour. understanding how to create flavour is the first part in learning how to cook. once you’ve mastered that, everything else will start to come naturally.
when i tell people i’m a home chef and show them my blog, the reaction i get a lot of the time is “OMG. cook for me! i could never do that at home!!!”. and while it’s flattering, i’m not doing anything that you couldn’t do, and no i’m not just being modest! my mission with this back to basics section is to teach you about food and cooking in straightforward terms; to share with you all the info i’ve spent years scouring the web for and learning about, broken down into an easy and conversational way. i want you to feel educated and empowered to be able to cook beautiful, delicious food at home.
it comes down to understanding the basic things like how to create and build flavour. i’ve talked about the maillard reaction before (which i’ll revisit in this section later), but now i want to teach you about the “holy trinity” in italian cooking: soffritto. a soffritto is the base to almost any soup, sauce, stew or braise, and it’s made from just 3 simple ingredients.
what is a soffritto?
traditional soffritto is 3 ingredients in a 2:1:1 ratio of 2 parts onion, 1 part celery and 1 part carrot. sometimes garlic can be added or even pancetta, with onions always having the larger ratio. soffritto in italian means “under-fried” or “fried slowly”, and is always the first ingredient to hit the pan. the soffritto creates a base for your other ingredients – it’s the first building block of flavour in a dish.
how to make a soffritto?
to make a soffritto, onions, carrot and celery are cut into small, even cubes of about 1/2 an inch (or smaller). cutting the ingredients into even sizes ensures even cooking time – you don’t want to bite into a huge chunk of uncooked carrot in your finished dish! the ingredients are added to olive oil and cooked over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes until it becomes dorata (golden). cooking the ingredients slowly releases their flavours (again with that maillard reaction!). however long you want to cook your soffritto is up to you – if you’re making a soup or risotto, you may want to cook them longer so they dissolve and blend together to make a thick, flavourful paste; for braises small, pieces left intact add colour and texture.
once your soffritto has turned golden and soft, it’s time to add your other ingredients such as meat, stock, or rice – or a splash of wine or other acid for another building block of flavour (but more on that on another day).
*a quick note on onions*
there are a few different types of onions you will find at your local grocery store, and yes, your choice is important and will directly impact the flavour of your dish. when using onions for a soffritto, or as a base for flavour, you want to be using yellow onion (or spanish onion, which is a reference to the size not the origin). they are the most common onion to cook with because they have a mild flavour, nice balance and become sweeter the longer they cook. if you love onions as much as i do and want to learn more about the different types, there are a few great articles here, here and here to teach you more!
in some places in italy, when you go to the market to purchase your vegetables, the farmer will ask if you would like some odori and throw in a stray celery stalk, carrot, and onion as a thank you. which is just another custom of italy that i’m in love with and wish we would adopt here.