I am often asked this question and I have to say that I love shortcut myself because I live in America with two teenagers, a 24/7 job and lead a very busy life. Whenever I can use shortcuts and not compromise on taste I do so and I teach my tricks to others but when it comes to “Umami”–that deep and evasive flavor and intensity that every chef struggles to develop–there is magic involved and not so many shortcuts.
I always tell my customers if you go for Italian and as soon as you open the door of a restaurant and it reeks of garlic, run away! If you want Japanese and all you can smell is seaweeds, do the same.
Umami is achieving a flavor in the combination of a spoonful that goes into your mouth that creates the “je ne sais quoi”- I can’t point out the flavor sensation.
It is tough to learn. I have trained Cordon Bleu Chefs who are solid bakers and know the basics of French or Italian soups, sauces, etc. and can’t achieve Umami.
If you are well versed in spices and flavors and have the audacity to experiment and fail, or if had a grandmother like mine who was a magician in the kitchen, you have a palette that lends itself to taking on such an adventure.
That said, we are talking about shortcuts and a few things are considered “fairy dust” when it come to the kitchen. For me Saffron which is worth as much gold per ounce is one of those ingredients. Recently I read in an article that the Western world has finally caught up with Fennel Pollen and it brought a smile to my face because that’s exactly what I do when I want to put a twist on something. They discovered that Fennel is a flavor booster. Yes ladies and gentlemen, don’t use MSG, use fennel pollen. Use saffron and even though expensive, a little goes a long way if you use high grade, really red saffron.
There are other shortcuts too but you have to first visit me at Harvard Cookin'g Girl for San Diego’s Best Cooking:)
Bibi Kasrai earned her MBA from Harvard Business School and was a high level fundraising executive. She left her career to follow her passion of cooking and teaching and founded Harvard Cookin' Girl.