Spicy/HotThere is a reason that black pepper sits aside the salt on many tables around the world, as well as in the kitchens of master chefs. Something that "perks up" the taste buds makes the whole dish taste better. Peppers (both from peppercorns and chile peppers) are the main spices which produce this effect, but the dish needn't be spicy-hot to benefit from peppers. Except in purposefully spicy dishes, just a touch of heat in the background won't taste spicy, just more "alive".
When using dried peppers or other spices (usually powder), the flavor comes out best by cooking it in oil, or by dry-roasting on the stove before adding other ingredients. These dry ingredients should always be added at the beginning of a dish to give the flavors time to develop, blend, and lose the harshness of dried spices.
Fresh chile peppers can be added at different times in the cooking, depending upon the effect wanted. If you want them to blend into the dish, treat them as other aromatics. If you want a fresher effects sprinkled through, add them towards the end. Obviously, fresh and dried peppers taste different from one another.
Note that chile peppers vary along a whole spectrum of heat. (See this Chile Pepper Heat Scale from About.com's Home Cooking Site.) Whether fresh or dried, I like to use mostly milder peppers for fuller flavor (you can use more for more heat). Ancho is one of my favorites. New Mexico chile is hotter, but very flavorful. (Note: Chili powders are blends of dried chilies with other spices, such as cumin. They also vary in heat according to the chilies in them.)
Besides black or red peppers, there are other spices which lend some heat, most more subtle:
- Curry powders or pastes (which also get their heat from peppers.
- Coriander is perhaps my favorite spice - it's warm, with citrusy notes. It's the seed of the cilantro plant.
- Cumin (warm, not hot)
- Mustard, powder or prepared
- Paprika is also a member of the pepper family, which can be mild to hot, or smoked
- Turmeric - mild, warm spice used often in Indian cooking
- Some kinds of cinnamon can verge on spicy, such as Vietnamese cinnamon
- Many other common spices (cloves, allspice, fennel, etc) can convey a subtle heat
- Raw garlic can be fairly "hot"
CreamiessIf all the spice is getting to be too much, a little cream or coconut milk can do wonders. No wonder so many hot Asian curries have coconut milk in them.
Ingredients Which Are BlendsIf you look at some of the condiments in your cupboard, you'll find that they are already combinations of flavors. Ketchup has vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices. Worchestershire sauce has molasses, vinegar, tamarind, and anchovies. Barbeque sauce has sugar and vinegar along with the spices. These condiments can add several flavors at once to your cooking.
Using Balancing Magic to Improve Your CookingThere are some general principles you can use to improve your ability to blend flavors, although the final outcome will reflect your own unique tastes.
Look at a familiar recipe. Does it have something from all the flavor groups? Try adding a little someone from the missing group(s). (Note that all recipes don't need to have all the flavor elements. In some cases it can be overkill. I don't want any acid in my chicken pot pie, for example.)
There is no substitute for tasting the food, making adjustments, and seeing what happens. If you go to far in one direction, often adding opposing flavors will bring the dish back into balance.
- Too spicy? Add some sweetness or creamiess
- Too sweet? Add some sour or heat
- Too sour? Add sweet
- Too bland? Add salt or some heat
- Too salty? Add sour
- Just needs a spark? Add acid or one of the aromatics added at the end of cooking, or just a touch of heat
- Need more depth? - Start with aromatics next time
- Too harsh? - Try just a touch of sweetness
More On Blending Flavors From About.com's Food Guides:
Thai Cooking Tips
A Matter of Taste (Chinese)
How to Make Your Own BBQ Rub