Have you ever tried to recreate your favorite restaurant’s seemingly simple dish and you just couldn’t get the flavors right, couldn’t figure out what separated it from just “good” to over the top? What’s that secret ingredient that the chef doesn’t quite divulge, even after, with sparkly eyes across the restaurant bar, you muster up the courage to beg for their recipe as he/she slips in to get a much needed post-shift drink? They graciously rattled off the recipe and you diligently jotted it down. What could have gone wrong? Chances are, their secret ingredient was a flavor base, something so automatic that they simply forgot; forgot to mention that is, the onions, garlic, and spices listed at the beginning had been previously sautéed together for quite some time.

In fact, most cuisines have a base or stock that provides a backbone that, without its addition, gives the impression the dish is simply “missing” something. Japan uses Dashi, a simple stock made with Kombu seaweed and dried Bonito flakes. In Mexico, a blend of charred onions, peppers and tomatillos provides deep flavor for salsas, sauces, and marinades. Thailand and Southeast Asia have their curries, which are full of spices and herbs that are pounded and crushed before adding to soups and stir-frys. In Spain and France, where they make some of the richest bases, they simmer diced aromatics in oil for hours to achieve a deep rich color and flavor, thus creating the delicious base called Sofrito for Spain’s national dish Paella, or Mire Poix for France’s famous braises and stews.

Even if you aren’t a super experienced home cook, having a great flavor base on hand will not only make cooking easier, it may inspire you to cook more, as the convenience of a ready-made “flavor bomb” will make even the simplest dishes come alive.

In this post, I’m going to show you how to make three of my favorite go-tobases to have on hand when inspiration strikes and you don’t have a lot of time. Make a large batch in advance and freeze into ice cube trays or pint containers. Break the ice cube trays into ziplock baggies to have ready-made portioned flavor at your fingertips.

You may be wondering, why not just buy one of the many available at the store? Unfortunately, store-bought sauces and flavor bases are often loaded with MSG, salt, additives and synthetic flavor enhancers. If you make it yourself, you’ll know exactly what’s in it, and can start playing around with adding your own twists, making it your kitchen’s new secret weapon, not to mention cutting a lot of time out of your prep. Weeknight dinners will never be the same!

Things to remember

  • The best tastes are achieved by layering flavors. For example add the onions first, as they take the longest to caramelize, then the garlic, then the spices.
  • Spices can easily burn, so it is essential they are added after everything has caramelized, so their flavors “bloom” in the oil quickly.
  • For many of these bases, once the onions begin to simmer and release their juices, you don’t have to baby the pot, just keep the heat low and stir occasionally.
  • Chopping by hand is preferred, or a quick pulse in the food processor (don’t puree), or, feel free crush and mash with a mortar and pestle.
  • The smaller everything is minced, the quicker it will cook, but also, the easier it will burn.
  • If you do “over puree” your ingredients by mistake, more water from the vegetables will be released. Don’t worry, you can still recover this by turning up the heat at the beginning to cook off the excess moisture. Just remember to turn it down when it begins to caramelize.
  • Double or triple the batch and freeze into ice cube trays to have ready-made “flavor bombs” available at a moment’s notice.
  • For smaller batches, it will keep for up to a week in a sealed container in your refrigerator.
  • The larger the batch, the longer your onions will take to caramelize. You can increase the heat to speed this process, but stir more often so even cooking is achieved.
  • Feel free to add more oil, even submerge the ingredients in oil if you like, to create very even cooking. If you use this method, be sure to strain the ingredients over a bowl, and save the oil! This delicious aromatic oil can be used for sautéing, basting, dressings and sauces.
  • You can use a skillet/sauté pan or a pot. Keep in mind the high sides of a pot trap moisture and will take your ingredients longer to caramelize. A sauté pan caramelizes much faster, but also requires you to watch it more closely.
  • If browning too quickly or sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water and stir, this will help it cook evenly.
  • These recipes are guides and do not need to be followed exactly. Feel free to put your own creative spin on things!