Use the magic of aromatics to build layers of flavor into food and take your meals to a new level.
Recipes are a great way to learn about cooking; but if you love getting creative in the kitchen, then at some point you’ll need to ditch the cookbooks. Creating delicious food without having to follow steps is fun, but what is the best way to get started? We recommend that you learn how to make aromatics. It is one of the most important cooking skills for boosting your culinary knowledge.
Bringing together a base of herbs, spices, vegetables, and fat will allow you to build amazing depth of flavor in virtually any recipe. Casseroles, curries, stocks, sauces, and many other savory dishes use aromatics as the foundation for a flavorsome meal.
You’re about to learn how to use aromatics at home as we reveal some of the best flavor combinations from around the world. You’ll also discover some knife skills to help with efficient food preparation. Let’s dive in and get started.
Learn how to balance flavor in your cooking with our ultimate guide to flavor profiles. We created a cool Taste Hex, that will really help your cooking!
What are aromatics in cooking?
Aromatics are simple combinations of herbs, spices, and vegetables that are usually cooked in fat at the start of a dish. Heat releases delicious aromas during the cook and fat helps distribute amazing depth of flavor into any additional ingredients that get added.
It’s likely you’ve already cooked aromatics many times in the kitchen. The classic combination of garlic, chilis, and onion, sauteed at the start of paella, is a good example. The aromas that waft through the kitchen are the foundation for a mouth-watering meal. Some aromatics are more complex or exotic, but they’re worth the effort to learn!
8 classic aromatic combinations
1. France (Mirepoix)
For centuries, the French have used the mirepoix as their trusted base for flavoring soups, marinades, and casseroles. The combination of carrots, onions, and celery may not sound exciting, but when cooked for long enough, it releases delicious flavor and aroma. Butter is an essential part of the mix and does more than just stop the vegetables from burning. It helps carry the flavor through to the other ingredients when they get added.
Dice two parts onions to one part carrots and one part celery. The French believe in dicing the pieces very small; whatever size you choose, just make sure they’re all the same size so that everything cooks evenly. Add seasoning along with any other French-inspired fresh herbs such as Herbs de Provence, thyme, or tarragon, then cook for five minutes before adding the next ingredients.
2. Italy (Soffritto)
The Italian soffritto is a simple mix of diced onion, carrot, and celery. It uses the same base ingredients and ratios as a mirepoix. The Italians tend to cut their vegetables larger and more roughly, but the result is no less delicious than the French version. Use a soffritto to dial up the flavor in bolognese, soups, stews, and lasagna.
Dice two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery. A soffritto will more often use olive oil although this can vary depending on the region of Italy. In the North of the country, dairy farming is predominant and butter is widely used.
The supplemental ingredients include garlic, fennel, sage, oregano, pancetta, wine, or parsley. There are others, but these are some of the most common.
3. Latin America (Sofrito)
Sofrito, or refogado, is used as a base for many dishes including farofa, vegetables, rice, and beans. Butter, oil, or lard is sautéed with onions and minced garlic until fragrant. Other commonly added ingredients include tomatoes, hot chilis, and bell peppers. Bacon, saffron, paprika, and oregano also complement this aromatic combination perfectly.
Refogado uses minced garlic which provides a lovely aroma when you cook it in the kitchen.
Thai curry pastes are bursting with color, flavor, and fragrance. Depending on the dish, they range from mild through to eye-watering hot. Massaman, green, yellow, and red are all types of Thai curries that benefit from a curry paste. Other uses include noodles, soups, seafood dishes, and even salad dressings.
The mix of shallots, garlic, and chilies, combined with cooking oil or coconut milk creates flavor and heat. Optional extras such as lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galangal contribute additional enticing fragrance.
Indian cookery is renowned for its aromatic combinations that range far and wide. A common flavor base starts with frying or roasting spices such as cumin, cardamom, and cloves, then cooking them in a pan with ghee or vegetable oil, onion, chili, turmeric, and garlic.
Each region of India has its own flavor combinations and uses for aromatics. Some dishes are sauce-based with the addition of ingredients like yogurt, coconut milk, and tomatoes. Other curries are dry, and simply incorporate meat or vegetables with the aromatic base.
The Chinese tend to cook food on high heat, and a popular aromatic combination is garlic, ginger, and scallions, cooked in oil. Supplemental extras to bring added flavor include chilies, shallots, cilantro, star anise, and chives.
Aromatics in Chinese cuisine vary depending on the region. In the Southern parts of the country, flavors are milder and delicate; in Sichuan, however, the flavor profile is a lot more extreme, with the generous use of dried chili.
7. Cajun (The Holy Trinity)
The Holy Trinity is a cajun and creole flavor combo that uses onion, celery, and green pepper, cooked in lard or butter. Unlike mirepoix or soffritto which has a higher ratio of onion, this Cajun mix uses equal parts of each vegetable. To enhance the flavor profile, additional paprika, shallots, parsley, and garlic are incorporated into the dish.
In savory dishes The Holy Trinity is widely used; recipes that use it include jambalaya, sauces, chowder, stews, pot roast, gumbo, and sauce piquant.
8. Middle East
In Middle Eastern cuisine, garlic, onion, green onions, tomatoes, and raisins are often heated in cooking oil or ghee. The addition of ginger, cumin, cardamom, sumac, baharat, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron brings vibrant color, fragrance, and depth of flavor.
Aromatics are used to enhance many savory Middle Eastern meals including stews, soups, tajines, and rice dishes.
The classic aromatics summarised
|Country||Name||Fat||Typical vegetables||Popular herbs and spices|
|France||Mirepoix||Butter||Onion, carrot, celery.||Herbs de Provence, thyme, chives, chilies, cilantro.|
|Italy||Soffritto||Olive oil||Onion, carrot, celery.||Fennel, chilies, parsley, garlic, oregano.|
|Latin America||Sofrito||Olive oil||Onion, garlic, chili, bell pepper, tomatoes.||Tomatoes, hot chilis, bell peppers.|
|Thailand||Thai curry||Oil or coconut milk||Shallots, garlic, chilies.||Lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal.|
|India||Ghee or oil||Onion, chili, garlic.||Cumin, cardamom cloves, turmeric.|
|China||Vegetable oil||Garlic, ginger, scallions||Chilies, shallots, cilantro, star anise, and chives.|
|Cajun||The Holy Trinity||Lard or butter||Onion, celery, green pepper||Paprika, shallots, parsley, garlic.|
|Middle East||Ghee or oil||Garlic, onion, green onions, tomatoes, raisins.||Ginger, cumin, cardamom, sumac, baharat, turmeric, cinnamon, saffron.|
Aromatic cooking tips
If you’re cooking for a large number of people, reduce the stress by prepping the vegetables in advance. Store everything in the refrigerator until needed in an airtight container.
Use care when handling chili and wash them before touching your face. The oil can burn or irritate the eyes and skin if contact is made. Chopping onions can cause the eyes to sting and water profusely; to stop this, place a glass of water next to the chopping board. It will instantly solve your problem.
If you enjoy cooking tips like these then check out our best kitchen hacks all on one page.
Be creative and fuse your favorite cuisines into one dish. If you enjoy sumac in Middle Eastern cooking, maybe it will also work well in the Indian curry you’re developing.
Use a sharp knife
That sounds kind of obvious, but it is surprising how long home cooks hold on to old knives. They’ll slow your prep down and injuries are more likely. We did an in-depth comparison of the gyuto vs santoku knives. They’re both excellent “all-rounder” knives well worth the investment.
Traditional aromatic recipes such as a mirepoix have stood the test of time for good reason, they provide the best base for many recipes. Try to honor tradition, but don’t obsess over it. If you’re missing the occasional ingredient, it shouldn’t stop you from making the dish. Also, ratios aren’t set in stone. If you don’t enjoy celery, then consider adding less, or swap it out for leek?
Fresh is best
Fresh ingredients will help your food reach its maximum potential, but if you’re short on time, frozen vegetables will also work.
Fat isn’t essential
Fat isn’t always necessary to cook aromatics. For example, Mexicans char the vegetables in a dry pan before using them as a base for tomato sauce.
Sweating is a good option
Sweat vegetables in a pot to soften them without browning the outsides. Heat everything in a little broth, water, juice, wine, or oil in a pot with the lid covered.
How to prepare aromatics
Will the aromatics remain in the dish when served?
If the vegetables will be served as part of the meal then dice them very finely. This technique will allow the veggies to break up in the pan, creating a thick, richer texture. Chopping smaller pieces also creates more surface area, resulting in the flavor being released quicker.
Will the aromatics be removed before serving?
Some aromatics are fished out of the pot before the meal is finished. A good example of this is consommé, which uses chopped vegetables and meat to add flavor. The liquid is used in the meal, while the solids are often discarded. In these circumstances, the vegetables don’t need to be cut evenly or into small pieces. Roughly chop onion or carrots into large chunks and toss them in.
How long will the cooking process last?
As a general rule, the longer the cooking time, the bigger the aromatics can be. For a stock that will simmer all day, large cubes or even halved onions are perfectly fine. For a quicker, sautéed dish, cut the pieces as small as possible to speed up cook time. Tiny cubes of vegetables are called a brunoise in French cooking, which is the size you want to aim for.
Below is a handy summary of best cut size for each type of dish.
|Type of dish||Size of cut|
|Sauces that cook fast||Fine dice (brunoise)|
|Braises or soups||Mid-sized cut|
|Slow cooking||Big chunks|
How to chop vegetables
As with most processes in the kitchen, there is an easy way and a hard way to do things. A seemingly easy task like dicing an onion can be surprisingly challenging! To speed up vegetable preparation for aromatics, here are some useful instructional videos to help you rustle up a sofrito or mirepoix in minutes. You can also check out our selection of videos demonstrating cooking techniques.
How to dice an onion
How to cut celery
How to cut carrots
How to cut bell pepper
There are loads of different culinary cutting techniques which all have their purpose. As you experiment with different aromatics each night, practice your knife skills at the same time.
You’ll find some are easier than others. For aromatics, important cuts to learn are the small, medium, and large dice, chop. The most challenging and time-consuming technique is the brunoise. Rouxbe provides an excellent demonstration of this technique here. Start by cutting long thin pieces (julienne), then dice into cubes no larger than 1/8″ (3mm) in size. French chefs will often brunoise down to 1/16″ which isn’t a skill to learn overnight!
European Vs. Asian aromatics
Cuisines that are influenced by European recipes use traditional flavor bases which comprise of a few vegetables, and occasionally herbs and meat. Asian countries will often use vegetables, herbs, and the addition of spices, to create a wide variety of flavors, colors, and aromas.
In European cooking, base mixes are usually sweated to allow the ingredients to release their flavor into the liquid or fat that surrounds it. Asian-inspired chefs will often sauté the aromatics to seal the flavor in.
Check out our handy graphic which summarises some of the best flavor combinations from around the world. Once you master these, you’ll be an expert in flavor base creation.
Do you want to learn how to cook without using a recipe? An essential skill you’ll need to understand is how to develop layers of flavor into food. Aromatics play an essential part in flavoring many dishes, but they’re quite simple to learn. You are probably familiar with some of the classic aromatic combinations already.
We recommend setting yourself a new “aromatic challenge” every night for a week. Attempt as many flavors from around the world as you can. Repeat the mixes for a few weeks and you’ll have them mastered! Then you’ll have taken a big step towards cooking without a recipe book.
Ready to learn more about cooking? Now that you have a grounding in aromatics, you may want to check out our ultimate guide to making sauce. Learn about the five “mother sauces” which allow you to make practically any sauce from them.
Enjoy desserts? You must take a look at our ultimate guide to making ice cream at home. It is suitable for beginners and provides techniques to make amazingly creamy ice cream, even if there’s no ice cream maker at home. Get cracking!
What is your favorite aromatic combination? Please let us know in the comments below.