Layering Flavors: The Secret to More Delicious Cooking
Close your eyes and think about the best meal you’ve ever tasted. Call to mind the flavors that burst through each bite: it could be a perfect balance of high and low notes, or perhaps a surprising contrast of sweetness and saltiness, or maybe even a subtle acidity echoed in every component of the dish. Whatever those flavors were, they came together to create a meal you still remember to this day. Pretty amazing, right? Flavors don’t harmonize like that by accident — they’re the result of a delicate, deliberate process known as flavor layering.
Odds are you’ve heard a celebrity chef or a particularly culinary-minded friend mention layered flavors, further building its mystique. Though it may sound intimidating, you don’t have to be a classically trained chef to use layered flavors to your advantage. In fact, you already practice flavor layering to a certain extent, even if you haven’t realized it yet! Whether it’s one of grandma’s holiday recipes or a weekly staple you tinkered with until it met your preferences, layers of flavor are present in every dish you cook. It’s the art of intentionally maximizing and melding those layers — the very master skill we’re teaching today — that leads to some seriously memorable dishes on the grill or smoker. No, seriously: scientists have found that we increasingly crave food with complex layers of flavor!
OK, now time for a pinch of not-so-great news (any more would ruin the flavors we’ve been carefully layering): this is not a one-size-fits-all process; instead, it depends entirely on personal tastes and/or what you’re trying to achieve on the plate. There are simply too many permutations of ingredients, cooking techniques, and flavor-profile combinations to create a definitive set of steps applicable to every dish. So, we did the next best thing — sat down with flavor-layering expert Rasheed Philips, pitmaster at Philips Barbeque Co. in Atlanta and contestant (no spoilers!) on Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown.” He’ll help us walk you through the main concepts of layering flavors, which you can then apply to anything you cook, whether on the grill or in the kitchen. Just as every dish benefits from a base layer of flavor, you need this foundation of knowledge for elevated, master-level cooking.
Layered Flavors Affect Our Eating Experience
“So,” you might be wondering, “why would I go through the trouble of trying to master something that seems so imprecise?” First of all, we’d like to say that layering flavors isn’t as complex as it sounds, even if the resulting flavor profiles are. (Much more on that in a bit.) Secondly, go back to that meal you called to mind at the beginning of this article. We’re willing to bet your original experience with it went a little something like this: a perfect blend of complementary flavors at first, followed by successive bites where you identified the individual flavors within the dish. We’d also wager you loved every second of it! This progressive, enjoyable flavor discovery is a hallmark of dishes with thoughtful layers of flavor.
“Do you ever take a bite of something and immediately close your eyes? That’s what properly layered flavors do,” Rasheed says. “They make you sit back and think of everything you taste. You’ve had numerous meals, maybe something like a simple ham and cheese sandwich, where you can continue talking right through it. But a dish where the knee-jerk reaction is to close your eyes and absorb everything? That’s what you want.”
Believe it or not, there’s a scientific term for that experience. “Hedonic escalation” occurs when you find yourself enjoying — and almost craving — each successive bite more and more. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research states that hedonic escalation is more likely to take place when, among other factors, “a palatable food consists of a complex combination of flavors.” Hmm, does that sound familiar to anyone? Flavor layering is the key to more enjoyable food not only for yourself, but also for your family and guests. Before long, you’ll be that culinary-minded friend singing the praises of layered flavors. But first, you’ve got some learning to do!
What is Flavor Layering?
Simply put, layering flavors is the process of incorporating complementary flavor profiles to a dish to enhance its depth and complexity. When done correctly, the end result is a meal greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t think of layered flavors as actual, tangible layers of food on a plate (though you could theoretically layer flavors in such a way). Instead, imagine the layers coexisting and forming a symphony in each bite.
If that sounds a little vague, that’s because it is! Remember, the process of layering flavors is dish-specific. So, let’s start by taking a high-level look at flavor layering in action, using Rasheed’s Jamaican oxtail stew as an example. The recipe calls for about a dozen ingredients, which could come together to form a perfectly fine dish if cooked without a care for flavor layering. But by arranging the layers of flavor just so, Rasheed transforms what would otherwise be a decent meal into a fully realized and elevated dish. Check out how it’s done:
“I'm a huge believer in cooking in layers,” Rasheed says. “A perfect example would be the smoked oxtail… There's so many layers right there that the end result can't help but be something amazing and delightful.”
Amazing and delightful, indeed… but, again, what we just covered is a single method of layering flavors for a single dish, simply for the sake of example. Say Rasheed opted for a milder pepper like a serrano, or withheld that layer of heat altogether. Despite a slight change in layering, the final product would present a different flavor profile. Similarly, a hypothetical splash or two of wine in the braising liquid would alter the experience, as would the removal of garlic from the aromatic base layer. Every ingredient matters, and the way each component interacts with others is what allows you to create unique layers of flavor that fit certain dishes better than others. As our good friend Rasheed puts it, “there are a million and one ways” to go about layering flavors.
Fortunately, as we alluded to earlier, there are general guideposts to follow when searching for the best of the “million and one” ways to layer flavors in any given dish. Let’s explore those concepts, along with some common examples and a few others from Rasheed’s Master Grillabilities® lessons.
A Guide to Layering Flavors
Following a recipe is a quick and efficient way to try something new — that’s why we’ve created roughly 200 of them just for you! — but the real (outdoor) kitchen magic occurs when you apply your knowledge to experiment with an existing dish or build a new one from scratch. That’s the goal of these fundamentals: to give you a master skill you can lean on every time you fire up the grill. As you read, think about meals you commonly make and consider how each principle can take them to the next level.
"Taste" vs. "Flavor"
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that “taste” and “flavor” don’t actually mean the same thing. Most of us use the terms interchangeably in conversation, but there’s a strict scientific difference that weighs heavily on this discussion. “Taste” describes the well-defined sensations (bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami) detected by taste buds on our tongues, while “flavor” encompasses the entire sensory experience of a bite of food. Taste is a key component of flavor, of course, but aroma and texture also influence our perception of a dish’s overall flavoring.
Understand Your Ingredients
It’s easy to get lost in ambitious flavor layering, but the process always starts with a firm grasp of the most basic ingredients. Their tastes are the building blocks of individual flavor layers, which then come together to form a completed dish. Think of this relationship in terms of music: a song has different layers in the form of percussion, rhythmic instruments, keyboard, guitars, vocals, etc., that come together for a cohesive experience. How the musicians play each musical note in their respective “layer,” and how the producer adjusts each of them, changes the overall sound of the resulting piece. So it is with a chef, whose adjustment of each note of a flavor layer alters the overall flavor profile of the resulting dish.
The bottom line is that it’s difficult to achieve the desired product if you don’t understand the individual tastes at play. Fortunately, you’re already familiar with how a lot of ingredients taste! (They say experience is the best teacher, after all.) The challenge, then, is understanding what tastes you need and selecting ingredients that provide complexity.
“You have to know your individual ingredients and work them in based on the flavor profiles they create,” Rasheed says. “For example, you might need an element of salt in a dish. You could just add salt and be done. But you could also grind anchovies and use that instead. You still get the saltiness, but with an added depth of flavor. In the context of BBQ, when people think ‘sweet’ they usually turn to something like maple syrup or brown sugar. But me? I’m going to grab a mango and smoke it to add something more on top of that natural sweetness.”
As Rasheed points out, these crucial decisions occur every time you choose to incorporate an ingredient. For another example, let’s say you need stock for a stew or braising liquid. Is your dish best served by the milder taste of chicken or vegetable stock, or the bolder impression left by beef stock? Here’s yet another case study: when it comes time to deglaze that pan, is beer or wine a better alternative than water? Additionally, could your BBQ rub stand to gain anything from a few pinches of pungent turmeric, or would that result in an overpowering flavor profile? Does a deeply sour vinegar make more sense than bright citrus juice for your acid? And how would the dish taste with a mild and sweet cherry smoking wood versus a strong hickory? These choices may seem small, but every one of them alters the flavor layer in question.
Keep the 5 Tastes in Mind
Once you’ve taken time to consider and experiment with the tastes of individual ingredients, think about which ones play well together. That can be as easy as reflecting on the relationships that exist among the 5 tastes we mentioned earlier: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami. (Scientists debate whether fat qualifies as a sixth taste, but we’ll stick with the traditional list for now.) Read on to see how we define each of the 5 tastes, along with the ideal combinations to include in your layers of flavor.
Sharp, pungent, and typically unpalatable by itself
Relatively high sodium content; used to enhance other flavors
Measures the level of acidity; adds freshness to other foods
High amounts of sugars; generally desirable in moderation
Savory and earthy flavor; often difficult to pin down on its own
Bitter, Salty, Sour, Umami
Coffee, tea, most green vegetables, cooked ginger
Table salt, potato chips, pretzles, feta and bleu cheeses
Vinegar, ctrus fruit, kimchi, rhubarb, sauerkraut
Sugars, milk chocolate, honey, baked goods, most fruits
Seared meat, eggplants, mushrooms, aged cheese, beans
Any pairing of the 5 Tastes can exist in the right balance, and combinations are often a matter of personal preference. When in doubt, you can rely on classic combos like bitter and sweet (coffee with sugar or sweetened tea) or sweet and salty (chocolate-covered pretzels or salted caramel popcorn) to guide your flavor-layering journey. Or you can step outside the box to create some truly interesting pairings — just be sure to follow the wisdom of your own taste buds. They’ve been around the culinary block a time or two!
Play with Salt, Fat, Acid, & Heat
Just as the 5 tastes must be held in a delicate balance, the 4 pillars of salt, fat, acid, and heat are essential to every dish. You’re already familiar with the role of salt from the previous section, but it’s important to know how we define the others in this context. Fat is another flavor booster that also aids in texture, acid brings brightness and balance, and heat — we’re talking temperature, not spiciness — transforms food while influencing texture, depending on its application.
“It’s so important to think about salt, fat, acid, and heat, then mix and match,” Rasheed says. “You can always keep them balanced, or use one more heavily than the others. It comes down to what works best for the person cooking. Some may have an aversion for too much of one element. … It’s ultimately up to personal interpretation. There are so many variables that you can use to have your dish match the flavor profile you want.”
Let’s again use Rasheed’s cooking as an example of salt, fat, acid, and heat in action. His lemon Scotch bonnet pepper wings recipe brilliantly blends each element, starting with a salt brine to ensure juicier chicken. For the fat, he chose a rendered butter sauce that also includes a bit of olive oil. Acid has a strong presence throughout the dish in the form of lemon juice in the sauce and lemon zest as a garnish. Finally, Rasheed applied heat in two ways via dual-zone cooking on the Blaze kamado: indirect heat to infuse smoky flavor into the wings, along with a brief blast of direct heat to achieve the crispy skin we all desire so much. When salt, fat, acid, and heat are properly balanced in service of a dish, you’ll be ahead of the game in terms of flavor layering.
You’ve probably realized this by now, but unless you’re a seasoned chef accustomed to improvising in the kitchen, layering flavors takes a good bit of planning. So, how do you time out the application of those flavor layers? The sooner, the better!
There are several ways to begin layering flavors early, and each method saves crucial time and energy when you’d be better served monitoring your meat, refueling the smoker, or preparing a side dish. Brining meat in a salty solution, for instance, is an incredibly easy option; this gives the salt time to penetrate deeper into the meat, resulting in a more flavorful and juicier product. Crank up the complexity by tossing some onion trimmings and stems from thyme and garlic into the brining liquid, then bringing everything to a simmer before starting the brining process. Perhaps your dish calls for butter, in which case you should prepare a flavorful compound butter ahead of time and store until needed. (Not sure what we mean? Our master-level guide to compound butters can help.)
Don’t overlook the utility of mixtures like the aromatic base layer of Rasheed’s oxtail stew. It’s a traditional Jamaican flavor base combining green onions, white onions, garlic, thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers — “sort of like the holy trinity plus two,” as Rasheed puts it. These base-layer combinations exist in virtually every culture: French mirepoix, Latin and Mediterranean sofrito, and the aforementioned Cajun and Creole holy trinity are a few examples. Incorporating these fragrant blends where culturally appropriate results in a complex base layer upon which entire dishes are built. Getting one going early in the cooking process will set you up for success.
…And Finish Strong
Have you ever watched a cooking show and seen contestants scramble to finish a dish with a sprinkle of salt? That’s not just Hollywood flair for the dramatic — adding a layer of flavor at the very end, even one that small, can make a huge difference in terms of the final product. Salt is a common choice for its last-minute flavor enhancement and, depending on the size of the crystals, crunchy texture. However, this may not be the way to go if your dish includes other salty elements throughout.
Thankfully, salt isn’t the only way to add some 11th-hour power to your cooking. Acids also make great finishers because they heighten flavor and release aromatics. Look no further than the lemon zest Rasheed applies to his Scotch bonnet wings, whose residual heat brings out the oils from the zest. The citrus aroma then clings to each bite while brightening the overall flavor profile of the wing. Similarly, fats can serve as the cherry on top (please don’t use a literal cherry) of a finished dish, as seen in the bleu cheese compound butter Rasheed uses in his grilled surf ‘n’ turf recipe. The heat of his filet mignon immediately melts the butter, rendering its fats while simultaneously activating the garlic and herbs within for a pleasant fragrance.
As sexy as a finisher can be, it’s important to remember that not all dishes need one. Follow your taste buds as usual to determine whether a final flavor layer would be a welcome addition. If you suspect some salt, acid, or fat might benefit the dish, take a bite and consider the flavors for a moment. Then, add the finishing layer and taste again. You’ll probably discover a new dimension of flavor, or a new flavor profile altogether!
The Order of Flavor Layers Matters
So, you know what makes sense as opening and closing flavor layers… but what about everything else? We’ll let Rasheed handle this one: “It strongly depends upon the dish, and the flavor profile always matters.” You might be tired of hearing that by now, but there’s no getting around the fact that flavor layering is specific to individual dishes. That being said, salt and heat should be layered with care.
Oversalting is always a concern, but moisture-filled foods like lobsters and shrimp can stand some salt early in the process without crossing the line. Naturally salty foods, of course, don’t need much help in that department. When it comes to heat — spiciness, not temperature; isn’t culinary language fun? — consider the ingredients and degree of heat you want in the dish. If you’re using a Rasheed-approved Scotch bonnet pepper, you need to know it delivers a staggering amount of heat compared with even a jalapeno. To compensate, you should layer in something like a Scotch bonnet early so its heat can taper off throughout the cook. Jalapenos or serrano peppers, on the other hand, are better layered in late so the dish can retain their relatively milder heat (if you palette can take it, that is). Cook time will always be a factor in terms of ordering your flavor layers, but you can still finesse them in for an optimal flavor profile.
Repeat a Flavor Profile or Ingredient
This one’s fairly self-explanatory, but there’s a certain joy in discovering the same notes used throughout different components of a dish. It not only creates cohesiveness within a meal, but also showcases thoughtfulness on the part of the cook. You can emit echoes with subtle spices and seasonings, or use the same ingredient in multiple ways. Take Rasheed’s Scotch bonnet wings, which feature both types of repetition from citrus notes in the poultry rub, lemon juice in the wing sauce, and lemon zest as a garnish. More generally, you might find a way to include fennel seeds, fronds, and bulbs on the same plate to echo fennel’s natural sweetness while playing with the differing textures.
Avoid Over-Layering Flavors
You’re probably eager to begin applying these concepts to your own cooking, but knowing where to draw the line is just as important a skill. There’s always a point where a dish becomes too busy or complex, detracting from the desired result. Finding that sweet spot is a matter of experimentation and, of course, the specific flavor profile of whatever dish you’re cooking.
It can be as simple as opting for a milder smoking wood to let your bold BBQ rub shine, or as fine-tuned as removing a single sweet ingredient from one of your layers. If there’s one thing to take away from this section, it’s this: always respect the dish’s origins and make sure it’s recognizable to your guests.
Work Backward with Flavor Layers
Whew, are you still with us? Good, because here’s how you actually apply everything we’ve just taught!
“Know where you want to be, then go backward,” Rasheed says. “It’s like finding your keys; someone always tells you, ‘Where was the last place you had them?’ You have to retrace your steps.”
In culinary terms, this means envisioning your finished dish’s flavor profile, then breaking it out into the individual layers of flavor that’ll get you there. Consider the key elements that must be balanced in every dish, along with the order and potency of your layers. That thinking led Rasheed to smoke his oxtail before braising. “I thought, ‘It’ll be so tender and just fall apart,’” he says. “That’s how you experiment and learn to layer to get the end results you want.”
Start Practicing with Layers of Flavor
There you have it, a guide to perhaps the most inexact culinary science out there! We hope you learned a thing or two about flavor layering, but now it’s time for you to get on the grill or in the kitchen and start putting these lessons into practice. The mountain may seem insurmountable right now, but the more you think about layering flavors, the easier it’ll become. Chefs spend years mastering this skill, and it comes from practice and experimentation in the kitchen. And remember: though the concepts included here can point you toward more rewarding layers of flavor, the only limits are your personal tastes and imagination!
“Taste buds are like snowflakes; no two are the same. What you may enjoy, someone else may not,” Rasheed says. “These differences allow you to unearth new flavor sequences. For instance, there are so many acids — there’s not just one sole, be-all-end-all type of thing. But you make new things on common ground, and that’s when people can really come together around food.”