There is no mystery about light cooking, but attention needs to be paid to flavor balance when you cut fat and salt. Through trial and error and 25 years of experimentation, our Test Kitchen has coaxed out solutions to these challenges. Here are a few things we’ve learned.
Credit: Oxmoor House

Keep the Flavor Ship Righted

A balanced dish is generally one that plays several flavor notes—salty, sour, bitter, sweet, or spicy—in harmony, without one flavor overpowering the others. In traditional recipes, fat is often the great enabler of harmony, smoothing out sharp edges and providing a rounded, balanced mouthfeel. Consider the beautiful way that the acidic notes of fresh lemon play off the unctuous, mouthfilling quality of a cream or butter sauce. Such contrast and balance is one of the central principles of much cooking. In light cooking, when you use less cream, you sometimes need to use less of the complementary ingredient, too—or you need to find a less fatty ingredient that stands in for the original.

These are factors we consider when developing recipes. For the home cook, it’s important to taste as you go and use a light hand with acids and spices until you’ve tasted your work. If a dish tastes off, you can often right the ship with a contrasting flavor. If it’s too sour, a pinch of sugar might bring it into balance. If too bitter, a dash of salt will help. If the dish doesn’t seem salty-savory enough, yet you’re limiting sodium, try a squeeze of lime, a dash of hot sauce, or a drizzle of a flavorful oil.

Embrace High-Fat Flavorings—in Small Amounts

We love the milky richness of butter, the smoky wallop of the best bacon, and the crunch of coarse salt, yet these are ingredients we use in reduced amounts. To get the most from them, we add them at the right time so they’ll have the most impact. Typically, that means toward the end of cooking. Good sea salt sprinkled on top of food, for example, will hit your palate first and strike a louder note than it would if buried in the dish. It makes little sense to add salt to marinades (except brines), breading crumbs, or batter; much of that salt will be left in the bowl. Instead, reserve the salt and add it directly to the food. In pasta dishes and soups, we often get better results when we use no-salt-added canned tomatoes and then add a small amount of salt.

Another technique in this vein: With a pound cake that contains less butter and more heart-healthy oil, we might use a browned-butter glaze because browned butter packs big butter flavor. We also scatter crumbled bacon over clam chowder or toss a bit into vinaigrettes.

Know When to Skimp and When to Splurge

Where does the most pleasure in a food lie? In traditional lasagna, for instance, it’s not necessarily in the buttery béchamel; it’s in the cheese. So, in our Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion, and Spinach Lasagna, we forgo the traditional butter-flour roux and deploy flour-thickened low-fat milk for the sauce, which allows for more creamy-gooey kick from fontina cheese.

Turn on the Flavor Boosters

Experiment with concentrated ingredients that are low in fat and salt—and look to other cultures. Some of our favorites include Asian staples such as Sriracha, sambal oelek (chile paste), and a growing range of curry pastes and Mexican pepper sauces. From the fresh aisle, herbs, garlic, and citrus rind and juice are essential. From the spice aisle, crushed red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, cumin, and coriander are mainstays. Dried mushrooms can add deep flavor, particularly earthy dried porcini mushrooms, which can be reconstituted with hot water or ground into a super- mushroomy powder.

Remember: Texture Determines Flavor

All cooks seek to take food off the stove when the texture is perfect, but cooking with less fat often reduces the margin of error. Without fatty sauces to compensate or fatty cuts of meat that hold their moistness, a dish is a bit more naked. Food quickly dries or becomes sad and bland. Check for doneness early, and, in the case of meat, give it a rest after it comes off the heat. Yes, resting adds a few minutes, but rushing is a false economy. If meat doesn’t rest (five minutes for a chicken breast, small steak, or chop; more for bigger cuts), it will spill its juices when carved: Sayonara, precious meaty flavor.