When thinking of Italian cuisine, dishes like pasta enveloped in hearty sauces come to mind. Certain flavors seem to be found across the different dishes, but what are these flavors? Many of the common Italian seasonings branch from the mint family tree. There are many other flavors incorporated into Italian cuisine as well, each contributing their own unique essence to the dish.
One of the main ingredients used in almost all dishes and known as “Liquid Gold” due to its versatility and color, is olive oil. The flavor of olive oil is fruity, pungent, and bitter. Olive oil is used for frying, braising, sauteing, baking, broiling, grilling, marinating, and basting. Olive oil is one of the main ingredients in traditional Italian dressing. Seasoned olive oil is also used as a condiment used for dipping or drizzling on top of food.
When you think of Italian food, garlic might be one of the top flavors you think is used in Italian cooking. Although garlic is widely used, it is used in moderation by traditional Italian chefs. Whole cloves of garlic will be used to season, then arenremoved instead of being served in the dish. This allows the flavor to remain without overpowering the meal. The flavor of garlic is a strong, heated taste that mellows and sweetens with cooking. Roasting garlic before cooking gives a well-balanced, nutty flavor. Garlic can also be added to olive oil and used as a condiment.
Spices: The Mint Family
The spices that derive from the mint family are basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
- Basil is the most commonly used spice in Italian cuisine in the United States. It has an initial subtle peppery flavor that evolves into a slightly sweet aromatic flavor. Basil is used in tomato sauces, pizza, meatballs, and pesto. Basil is added at the end of cooking so the flavor don’t overpower other seasonings.
- Oregano also comes from the mint family. This spice is most commonly used in Italian cuisine in Italy.
- Marjoram is similar to oregano with a more delicate flavor and spicy undertone. This spice is used in combination with other seasonings to bring out their flavors.
- Rosemary grows wild in the Italian countryside and has long been used in Italian cuisine. Rosemary has a tea-like aroma and a piney flavor. It is used primarily to season lamb, pork, chicken, and rabbit.
- Sage has a musty, minty taste and is used to enhance the flavors of meat dishes.
- Thyme has a subtle, dry aroma and a minty flavor and is added to almost all Italian dishes. There is a time for thyme when cooking. Thyme needs to be added early in the cooking process because of the way it releases flavors.
Spices: Other Families
There are a couple of other common spices used in Italian dishes that do not come from the mint family. Fennel seeds derive from the carrot family and have a taste of black licorice. This is the distinguishable flavor that is used to season Italian sausage. Additionally, bay leaves stem from the myrtle family and have a sharp, bitter taste. They are used to season meat and fish dishes as well as to add flavor to sauces and stews.
Cooking is a form of chemistry and this is proven with Italian dishes. Timing of ingredients and knowing what spice in combination with other spices will enhance the dish is key to creating a balance of flavors. Next time you sit down to enjoy a freshly prepared Italian meal, try to distinguish the flavors that make it taste Italian. If you would like to try a taste of authentic Italian cuisine for yourself, visit Italian Garden, located in San Marcos, TX.