Find the Flavour! How to make the most of your dishes.

brought to us by Chef Mike O’Hanlon

This week’s blog post is brought to us by Chef Mike O’Hanlon. Mike was trained in the UK, and has worked as a chef in the UK, Australia, and Canada. He is currently employed by Sobeys Wyse Road in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where he teaches cooking classes, helps customers with easy meal ideas, and conducts food demonstrations. Mike’s passion is getting people back into the kitchen and helping them learn to make their own food from fresh ingredients. He favours rustic cooking methods that keep things simple while creating great taste, texture, and aromas – creating a ‘party in your mouth’! You can contact Chef Mike at:

So you’ve just spent time and money on what looked like a good recipe and it tastes like, well, let’s just say it’s not as good as you thought it’d be. Let me guess - one of the words in the recipe was caramelize, reduce, render, or sear. Am I right?


I see these four words thrown around a lot in recipes and OFTEN see them executed improperly. Don’t get me wrong - there are other cooking methods that can generate free flavour, but these are at the top of the tree. Get these four methods correct and you will be able to create a lot more taste, texture, and flavour in all of your recipes. Hey - you may even gain some new friends with your cooking skills!


This is the easiest one to mix up.  Here the object isn’t to burn something - it’s about taking the natural sugars in food and applying the right heat to brown and sweeten it. The food you will be asked to caramelize most often is onion. Onions have some natural sugars, and caramelizing them can TRANSFORM a recipe!


Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pre heat a large pan on a high. Add a little oil and butter, and allow butter to melt.

  2. Add chopped onions. You should hear a loud sizzle. If you don’t then your pan is not hot enough.

  3. Start to rotate the onions in the pan and turn the heat down to medium high.

  4. Leave the onions ALONE!!! Check them every few minutes or so and only stir when they have turned golden brown. The pan should remain hot enough that you can still hear a sizzle but not be smoking the room out.


Caramelizing is complete when all of the onions are GOLDEN brown. Many people are scared of high temperatures and let onions sit in cold oil on a low heat, this will just stew/boil the onions and they will be as bitter as, well, a raw onion. Get it right though – party in your mouth!




Properly caramelized onions: start to finish.


Here is a funny one:  I once told my brother in law that he would need to reduce the stock that he had braised meat in. He poured it down the sink. If you don’t know why that is so funny you REALLY need to read this one! Reducing, let’s say a stock or sauce, is a way of thickening and enhancing flavour without adding ANY new ingredients.


You will want to first create the base of your sauce, caramelize your onions (which you now know how to do!), add your wine, cream, broth or whatever it is you want, and then bring it to a simmer. You will want to be using the widest pot you have – more surface area means a faster cooking time.


Your aim is to keep this thing just under a simmer for a LONG period of time. Without getting all sciency here, all you are doing is simply evaporating the liquid. Simmer and ‘bring’ the liquid down by a half or more, depending on your recipe directions. A classic ‘jus’ sauce can start as 75 litres and finish as one. Intense!


Let’s use bacon as an example here and let’s pretend for arguments sake that you want some nice crispy bits of bacon to put on top of your delicious Caesar salad (not soggy bits of fatty horrible bacon).  It’s actually an uncomplicated process. Find yourself a thick bottomed pan, put it on a medium heat, and throw in your bacon slices. Simple, right?


You don’t need added oil in this because you aim is to extract the fat away from the bacon. Trust me - you will have more than enough fat left at the end. Stir the bacon periodically and cook until the bacon becomes golden brown, nice and slowly though! You will notice during cooking that the fat content of the bacon is getting smaller and smaller, and the liquid fat level is getting higher and higher. This is a sure sign you are doing it right! Remove the bacon from the pan and place on some paper towel. You have rendered bacon, good job! Your guests will be talking all night about how crunchy your bacon was.


There are many myths and facts about searing and I’m not going to pick them all apart here. One thing I can say is that, no, searing is not somehow going to create a water tight seal around meat to stop the juices from escaping.  What searing DOES do is create a sexy tasting caramelized crust around the outside of meat.  Many cooks and chefs claim they sear the outside of meat to seal the juices in, this is simply not true. Frankly the idea that you can somehow melt the surface of the meat into a material that holds in all the juices has always seemed a little strange to me! Properly seared meat also should not stick to the pan.


So, how do you sear properly? Well, you can’t be timid!


  1. Place a skillet on a high heat, leave it for 10 minutes.

  2. Oil your meat and season with salt and pepper.

  3. WITH TONGS place your meat into the pan. You should hear a loud sizzle. Be brave: DON’T move the meat! Cook for 2-3 minutes or until a deep golden colour appears on the side that is cooking. Then you can flip it over and repeat with the other side. 

These four simple techniques will help you create so much flavour without having to add a lot of other stuff to your food. I like to keep things simple in the kitchen – it saves time, and lets you enjoy the real flavour of your food. Practice these cooking methods and you’ll be creating culinary delights in no time!

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