The Fundamentals of Italian Cooking Part 2: Building a Flavor Base

The Fundamentals of Italian Cooking Part 2: Building a Flavor

‘First comes the taste’ – Marcella Hazan

I think Marcella says it perfectly when it comes to Italian cooking- TASTE comes first! Taste goes hand and hand with flavor, or as they say in Italy, sapore! And Italian cooking is all about building that ever elusive flavor that will melt the hearts of the dear ones you cook for.

The definition of flavor is: distinctive taste; savor. Originating from the Latin word flatus, meaning blowing, breeze. As I contemplated the relationship between flavor and blowing/breeze what came to me were the myriad scents of nature’s breezes that just are. A breeze carries the smell of roses, the aroma of apples or grapes ripening in the sun, the smell of basil in the garden, or the mouth-watering smell of a Val di Chiana steak over a flame. The breeze carries the pure essence to you without adulterating it (unless of course you live near a farm like we do and you sometimes get the pleasant smell of cow manure mixed in).

When cooking Italian food, one must learn to pull that pure essence from their ingredients and allow it come forth in such a way that your guests swoon and moan with delight. The wonderful tool we have to discover and build this flavor is our TASTE. So off we go to learn how to build the real ‘Italian’ flavor of a dish.

Building the Flavor

In Elizabeth Romer’s book, The Tuscan Year, there is this beautiful saying, “If you want to eat genuine food then you must work hard to make it.” This is like anything in life, if you want something of quality you must work hard at it. And when it comes to building, I think the ancient Roman architects did a great job at that! Likewise when it comes to building the flavor base of an Italian dish think Roman architecture. Their buildings are still standing… and that is what you want with your flavor! Your goal is to have it stand up on its own, and not fall apart as you move forward with your meal.

What is this flavor base? It is a mixture of herbs, some aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic), and/or meat (pancetta, lard) cooked in a fat like olive oil or butter. As all things go in Italy, each region, town, borgo, and Nonna will have a different style and way of building a flavor base.

How do you go about building a flavor base? Begin by incorporating the three simple stages below into your dishes and you will make great progress in your understanding of the culinary world of Italy.

The three stages of building a flavor:

  1. Battuto (to strike) chopped or minced vegetables, herbs, and/or meat
  2. Soffritto (to sauté) what the battuto becomes when sautéed in a fat like olive oil, butter, or lard
  3. Insaporire (to enhance the flavor) adding additional vegetables or meat to the soffritto once it is done

Some bullet points to help you to understand and incorporate the three stages into your Italian cooking:

  • Battuto includes a variety of items beyond the most infamous Italian trifecta of onion, celery, and carrot; recipes may call for parsley, leeks, garlic, herbs, and meats.
  • Soffritto will always vary per dish and per region of Italy; this is what gives Italy so much variety across the many regions. The fats you will typically work with are olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, and lard. Once you practice this you will start to understand when to use the different fats to cook your battuto
  • Typical order of ingredients to be cooked when creating a soffritto: onion, then garlic, then carrots, and so on… onions will almost always be first! This will prevent the strong onion taste going into everything else.
  • When cooking for folks that dislike the taste of onion you can cook them over a gentle heat for a longer time during the soffritto For instance, my mom ‘hates’ the smell and taste of them (maybe even the sight of them), but when I cook for her she is okay with them, because I really let them cook and clarify.
  • Soffrito may sometimes call for lard or chopped/minced meats, which will always bring a deeper and more complex flavor.
  • When working with the ingredients for either stage of building your base, remember if you want to release more flavor quickly over a shorter cooking time, then chop or mince smaller. However, if you are cooking something over a longer period of time (like a soup, stew, or brasato al barolo), then chop roughly, halved, or leave whole (leaving them this way will provide greater ease when removing them after cooking, i.e., bay leaves, whole onions, garlic cloves).
  • Something to keep in mind is that you are not seeking to sauté your battuto over high heat. A better term than sautéing may be ‘sweating‘ them over a gentle or medium heat. This allows the pure essence of the flavor (its breeze) to waft forth versus being sealed inside when sautéing over high heat. The goal is to help release the flavor of each ingredient into the liquid in your pan.
  • The insaporire stage is very important, and this is where dishes go wrong quickly. The idea here is to enhance the flavor with new ingredients (vegetables or meat). Mix and sauté them in the soffritto and get them soaking up the wonderful flavor base you just spent all this time creating. Remember to sauté them with sufficient heat too, as this will help enhance the flavor to a richer and deeper level. This will help seal the flavor in your added vegetables or main meat.
  • Since these steps only involve a few ingredients, and are the foundation that everything else will be built on, strive to rely on the quality of the ingredients you are using (this will be covered in depth in Part 3).

I know for some of you this may be a review, and for others this may be the first time you have seen these stages of Italian cooking. For the latter group, there will be a learning curve for sure- especially in the prep time. But with a little practice you will flying along building your flavor to tastier Italian meals in no time at all. It only takes 15-20 minutes or so, and in the end, a well-built flavor base will make the difference between a ‘great’ Italian dish and a ‘mediocre’ dish.

If you are looking for some practice on this, here is a little ‘homework’.

A simple tomato sauce with chopped vegetables and olive oil

  1. First prep your ingredients. (serves 4)
  • ½ cup each chopped carrots, onion, and celery (Italy’s trifecta battuto)
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Either 2 lbs. ripe, peeled tomatoes or 2 cups of good imported Italian tomatoes
  • Penne or rigatoni (usually 2 oz. per person)
  • Salt
    1. For fresh tomatoes: Blanch, peel, and cook the tomatoes uncovered in a saucepan at a very gentle simmer for about 1 hour or so. Stir and mash up the whole tomatoes with your spoon while stirring.

    1. Pour extra-virgin olive oil into a deep sauce pan and add the chopped onions. Cook at medium heat till the onions turn a pale golden color (do not brown or blacken them), and then add your celery and carrots and cook for another minute or so, stirring the soffritto

  1. Add your insaporire: the cooked fresh tomatoes or the canned tomatoes; then add salt and mix. Cook uncovered at a gentle simmer for about 20 minutes for the fresh, and 45 minutes for the canned tomatoes. Stir throughout. Salt to taste and serve when done.

If you want to try something a little more complex after this, try out a white bean soup recipe. It involves an a crudo battuto (meaning the ingredients are not sautéed first) of onion, bay leaves, rosemary, sage, and garlic cloves. And then the olive oil infusion with pancetta and sage leaves is another form of a soffritto.

Make sure to incorporate what you learned in Part 1 by smelling and tasting the three stages of building a flavor as you go along, and file it all away into your memory bank!

I can’t wait to hear how it goes for you all. If you are looking for additional information about battuto, soffritto, and insaporire, please check out the Web as it is chock full of more details.