Cheap Ways to Add Big Flavor to Your Food

by Mikey Rox on 13 March 2012 8 comments
Photo: red.raleigh

Seasoning your supper with only salt and pepper when you’re craving a kick just won’t cut it. But there are ways to add lots of flavor to your food with spending a bundle. To get the mouth party started, here are a few inexpensive ideas to turn your meals up a notch. (See also: 8 Natural Ways to Make Water More Flavorful)

Dried Herbs

Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor than fresh herbs, so you don’t need as much, but this is a great way to add a medley of flavor to any dish. The most popular dried herbs include thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, and oregano, and you can experiment by mixing many of these together for a more diverse dish. Dried herbs can be used on meats, but I particularly like to add them to potatoes. I enjoy thyme and rosemary on roasted potatoes, and I like to add dried parsley to my mashed potatoes. Another quick tip for adding flavor to potatoes is to use the garlic dipping sauces from pizza places in place of butter. Instant garlic flavor without all the mincing.

Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs can be expensive, depending on where you shop. You can get around the cost of buying fresh herbs, however — and prevent them from going to waste — if you grow your own. I love cilantro and basil, but they come in bunches too large for me to use all of before they start to rot. Growing your own is super easy, too. All you need are small pots in a window with direct sunlight. When you’re ready to cook, just trim off the amount of herbs you need. Basil is brilliant on homemade pizza, and cilantro is the perfect topping for chicken fajitas or tacos.

Oils

Olive oil took center stage when the cooking revolution began with Food Network, but it’s costly. And if you want flavored oils, forget about it; artisanal olive oils can cost more than all your other ingredients combined. All hope is not lost, though. Just like you can flavor vodka, you also can make flavor-infused oils. eHow has a great step-by-step recipes on how to make herb-infused olive oil using those fresh herbs you’re growing. It doesn’t stop there either. You can flavor oils with lemon, red pepper, and more. These oils are great for use in cooking or for dipping.

Citrus

Lemons, limes, and oranges give that bright finishing touch to so many dishes. I squirt lemon juice on my roasted green beans and other veggies, and I use lime to add punch to flatiron steak. While the juice adds another flavor profile to your food, the zest of citrus can hold its own, too. Plus, the smell is refreshing and clean.

Garlic

There’s a reason why garlic gets applause on cooking shows — it’s a small-but-mighty ingredient that adds robust flavor, the bulbs are cheap, and one clove goes a long way. I recommend investing in a garlic press if you use garlic a lot to save on prep time; it’s crushed with one push. Just be sure not to burn your garlic. It turns bitter when burnt and can ruin your entire meal.

Marinades

Marinades are a combination of oils, citrus, herbs, and spices that help tenderize a cheap cut of meat and add flavor. There are so many marinade recipes out there that you can probably make a new one each night of the year. But if you’re not that ambitious, here’s a recent post I wrote on 10 cheap and delicious marinades.

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Butter

Before you freak out, the title of this post doesn’t say anything about healthy ways to add flavor. Butter is almost a prerequisite in any full meal, although lots of people skip it out to cut down the calories. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there really is no true substitute for butter. Margarine is sometimes a healthier alternative, but it doesn’t act the same way that butter does in cooking. I recommend buying unsalted butter for all cooking so at least you’re not consuming fat and sodium. If the cost of butter makes you wince, try making your own with this recipe for homemade butter.

Spices

There are many spices you can use when cooking, from cinnamon to cayenne pepper, that will give your dishes a boost. Spices are concentrated flavors, however; you should always use them sparingly. Add a little at first and taste your food; if you think it calls for more, add it in small quantities. Just remember that once it’s in there, you can’t take it out. Depending how much you use, a bottle of spice will last a long time but should be replaced after a year; they can become stale and lose their pungency.

Sauces

Think of sauces as a marinade that you use after cooking. Sauces can be rich, sometimes calling for butter and wine. But the benefit of a good sauce is that it gives your food an extra-special touch and a divine liquid to drench your meat in. Sauces are great on any kind of meat and even side dishes. One sauce that is super expensive in the store that is so easy to make at home is pesto. Perhaps this is a great way to use up your leftover basil.

Stocks

Instead of boiling rice in water, try using a stock for infused flavor. Stocks are great for stir frys, too. You can buy a box of stock at the store for a relatively low cost or you can make your own. This recipe for chicken stock (you can find other recipes for beef, fish, and vegetable stocks on the internet) yields five quarts, far and above the amount of stock that you’ll get in a single box at the store. It’s freezable, too, so you can store it in until you’re ready.

Gravy

Like butter, gravy is not good for your body, but your taste buds won’t complain. I buy low-sodium gravy packets from McCormick — quick and easy — but gravy is simple to make at home. Just add little flour to the pan drippings from your meat, and add milk or stock and a few other ingredients. Here’s a recipe for a basic, all-America brown gravy that will make almost any meal taste like it came from grandma’s kitchen.

Do you have other ways to add lots of flavor to food on the cheap? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

Citrus is definitely the way forward! I love lemon and lime with just about everything.

Nice post.

Guest's picture
JustAGuy

Thanks for the nice read.

I can't believe hot sauces or vinegar didn't make it to the list. Both can add a lot to staples that get boring (potatoes / rice / some veggies etc.) And unlike lots of the other recommendations don't add much in the line of calories or saturated fats etc. Usually pretty cost effective also. Well thats my 2 pennies.

Meg Favreau's picture

Oooh, yeah -- I love vinegar. My favorite lunches lately have been bean or lentil salads spiked up with lots of vinegar. And hot sauce is great too! Especially chili garlic sauce.

Guest's picture
scoutmaster

We all LOVE Paste food concentrate. At publix, Sam's etc...For less than $5. a lg jar start up cost...you use a tsp or so to add major flavor to food. A dab of mushroom packs a punch vs a pkg of mushrooms into a sause, gravy or soup. They come in onion, beef, chicken, clam, seafood, tomatoe, veggie, and mushroom. My homemade chicken & dumplings are all the rage at pot-lucks due to the chicken paste added. NO-ONE can guess my "secret" at the flavorful sause!!!!....These last for months in a frig.& taste wayyyy better than boulion.

Mikey Rox's picture

That's an excellent tip! Thanks very much for sharing. I'm a bit jealous of you, though, with a Publix nearby. I love that market, but we don't have them in the Northeast. :(

Guest's picture

Cilantro is PERFECT for making beans. I use a mix of cilantro, garlic, and olive oil and add that to a can of Goya beans! Add some beef bouillion and it's getting there. A bit of tomato paste, and oh my god.

By the way, ADOBO is the ultimate spice in my cupboard.
And it's VERY inexpensive.

Guest's picture
Ash

I kind of shuddered at the thought of putting garlic dipping sauce in to mashed potatoes. A splash of milk or cream, pepper, and some garlic salt are a less preservative-laden way of adding some garlic flavour to your mash. [Also, a big container of garlic salt lasts ages and can be used for many, many things, but who *always* has dipping sauce containers on hand?]

Mikey Rox's picture

Thanks for the comment, Ash. Those tips are great also. I always have dipping sauces on hand, however. I save them for things like this. It helps that we have pizza night at least once a week. We're two carb-loving men. :)