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15 Ingredients to finish your dish for maximum flavor

Give your dish a little extra punch with the right finishing touch.

BAM! That one culinary expletive, combined with a liberal dusting of spice, was for many of us an introduction to the art of finishing your dish with a final touch of flavor. Emeril Lagasse was the Baron of BAM!, and he always made sure to finish a dish with a dash of his now equally famous essence. That gave the final dish extra complexity, and it was better for it. Now, like Emeril, you can finish your dishes with a little extra pizzazz, using essence, herbs or really anything whose flavor you enjoy.

1. Parsley

marinated tomatoes

Parsley is a standby on many savory dishes because a little sprinkle adds nice color to otherwise drab dishes. If you cut your parsley slightly larger (maybe into 1/4-inch pieces) and use flat-leaf parsley, you’ll get not only color but a slightly herby flavor perfect for many savory dishes, fried foods and salads. Parsley gives these marinated tomatoes on rustic grilled bread the perfect finishing touch.

2. Asian five-spice

chinese five spice powder

Image: Pim Techamuanvivit/Flickr

Emeril’s essence was a Louisiana-inspired spice mix that finds a kindred spirit in Asian five-spice powder. Consisting of five spices (star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon and fennel), this blend lends itself to sweet foods (like pork and chicken), where the cinnamon, cloves and licorice-flavored anise combine to add a very spice cake finish to a dish. Use sparingly, because a little goes a long way. Learn to make homemade five-spice powder.

3. Turmeric

tandoori chicken

Usually known as an ingredient in curry or as the stuff that makes mustard really yellow, turmeric nonetheless has a subtle spiciness and aroma that is reminiscent of mustard. A slight pinch scattered over a dish will add depth of flavor and a unique color to the food. Try this recipe with turmeric to discover the delicious flavor it lends to tandoori chicken.

4. Hot chili powder

lemon pound cake

Chiliheads will love the idea of dusting a little (or a lot) of a flavorful warm spice — chipotle, cayenne or ghost pepper, for instance — over the finished dish. Adding too much dried spice to a dish will give it a grainy texture, but adding a pinch will add another layer of tongue-scintillating scorch to what may already be a spicy dish. Try this sweet and spicy lemon pound cake that has a pinch of cayenne pepper in the glaze.

5. Balsamic vinegar

grilled vegetable tart

Anytime you add vinegar to a dish, you should know what you’re doing, and balsamic vinegar is no exception. The pungent acidity of any vinegar can ruin the balance of the best dish, but a little drizzle of balsamic can give the dish a little something extra. Also, if you’re not worried about the sweetness, you can reduce 3 parts vinegar with 1 part brown sugar to make a thick syrup. Spreading that syrup over a dish gives it a tangy sweetness you won’t find anywhere else. A balsamic reduction gives this simple grilled vegetable tart tons of flavor.

6. Flavored vinegar

melon mozzarella salad

Specialty vinegars, especially those mixing vinegar and herbs, are becoming increasingly popular. A dash or two of vinegar flavored with herbs that complement the flavors in the dish can awaken taste buds and make the dish come alive. Just add the vinegar while it’s still warm, and give it a minute to mellow before serving. Champagne vinegar mixed with mint gives this melon and mozzarella salad some zing.

7. Olive oil

burrata salads

Many Mediterranean cuisines (in particular, Greek, Italian and Spanish food) love to top their final dishes with a big drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. You can take a page from their book and add a little good, high-quality olive oil to the top of a dish. The extra richness and fattiness from the oil brings out additional flavors in the dish and oftentimes just tastes good by itself. Try these incredibly flavorful Mediterranean-style salads that are dressed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper.

8. Flavored oil

truffle fries

Don’t just consider adding regular olive oil either. You can find flavored olive oils or consider oils with extra flavor like groundnut oil, truffle oil or even peanut oil if you are absolutely sure that no one is allergic to peanuts. If you’re not sure where to start, you can find toasted sesame oil in most Asian aisles, and many stores are starting to carry citrus olive oil. Try these shoestring fries with black truffle oil to see how flavored oil amps up a dish.

9. Melted butter

homemade gnocchi

Not sure what to add, but you know your dish needs something? Try melting butter and brushing it lightly across the top of your dish. A little butter never hurt anything. The only sauce this homemade gnocchi needs is butter.

10. Melted garlic butter

grilled oysters

If you want to be a little more exciting than just butter, try chopping some garlic and tossing it in a pan with a stick of butter. Melt the butter, and stir together. Take that resulting garlic butter to add spice and the salty richness of butter to any dish. Try it out with these easy grilled oysters topped with herbed garlic butter.

11. Specialty salts

pink salt

Image: BlacknBlueBerry/Flickr

Speaking of salt, there are now a number of flavored salts on the market. Now, finishing a dish with a little salt is no excuse for not properly seasoning your food during cooking. Rather, consider adding smoked sea salt, sulfur-rich pink salt or gourmet gray salt to a dish to add additional saltiness, the flavors that are part of the salt and the crunch from the crystals. A pinch of finishing salt on a perfectly cooked steak can be a wonderful thing.

12. Honey

butternut squash tart

Use honey only if you’re not afraid of making your dish too sweet. If this is not a concern, then a little honey (or a mixture of water and honey) can be brushed or drizzled over a dish to give a golden sweetness you don’t get with anything other than honey. A drizzle of honey on this savory butternut squash tart gives just the right balance of flavors.

13. Bread or cracker crumbs

braised fennel

Image: Rev Stan/Flickr

Flavored breadcrumbs, crushed crackers or panko can top a dish to provide a nice textural element. They also bring a little flavor to the party (usually an herbaceous flavor or salty flavor) that can be nice, but large enough crumbs are great for enhancing the mouthfeel of a dish. Panko gives this braised fennel a bit of crunch.

14. Hot sauce

udon noodle bowls

Not for the faint of heart, a few lines of Sriracha sauce, Cholula or another fancy hot sauce add several things to a dish: heat, a slight acidity from the vinegar, sweetness from added sugar and the natural flavors of the peppers that make the sauce. Again, a little goes a long way, but it can be a nice way. These udon noodle bowls get kicked up a notch with a drizzle of Sriracha sauce.

15. Grated cheese

vegetable gratin

What dish can’t be improved with cheese? All you need to do is find a hard cheese or an aged cheese (or an aged hard cheese) and grate it over your dish. The result adds saltiness and usually gives it what can only be described as a sourness that really does wonders for most dishes. Grated Parmesan adds the perfect hint of flavor to this fresh veggie gratin.

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