Aromatics build layers of flavor into food and take your meals to a new level. A simple combination of everyday ingredients will allow you to build an amazing depth of flavor in virtually any recipe.
Boost your culinary knowledge by learning some simple aromatic spice combinations. This guide will show you the best flavor combinations from around the world and loads of handy tips and knife techniques for prepping ingredients the right way.
Related reading: Learn how to balance flavor in your cooking with our ultimate guide to flavor profiles.
What are aromatics in cooking?
Aromatics are simple combinations of herbs, spices, and vegetables that are usually cooked in fat at the start of a dish. Heat releases aromas during the cook and fat helps distribute the flavor into any additional ingredients that get added.
You may have already cooked aromatics in the kitchen. The classic combination of sautéed garlic, chilis, and onion at the start of a paella recipe is a good example. They are the foundation for a mouth-watering meal. Other aromatic mixes are more complex or exotic, but they are usually well worth the extra effort.
8 aromatic combinations from around the world
1. France (Mirepoix)
For centuries, French cooks have used the mirepoix as their trusted base for flavoring soups, marinades, and casseroles. The combination of carrots, onions, and celery may not sound exciting, but they release tasty flavor and aroma. Butter is an essential part of the mix. It helps carry flavor through to the other ingredients once added.
How to make a mirepoix
- Dice two parts onions to one part carrots and one part celery. The French believe in dicing the pieces very small. Whatever size you choose, just make sure they’re all the same dimensions so that everything cooks evenly.
- Add seasoning along with other French-inspired fresh herbs like Herbs de Provence, thyme, or tarragon.
- Cook for five minutes before adding the next ingredients.
2. Italy (Soffritto)
The Italian soffritto is a simple mix of diced onion, carrot, and celery. It uses the same base ingredients and ratios as a mirepoix. Italians cut their vegetables larger and more roughly, but the result is no less delicious than the French version.
Use a soffritto to enhance the flavor in bolognese, soups, stews, and lasagna.
How to make a soffritto
- Dice two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery.
- Cook the onion until translucent then add the carrot and celery and cook until the vegetables soften.
A soffritto will more often use olive oil although this can vary depending on the region of Italy. In the North of the country, dairy farming is more common, and butter is widely used. Other popular ingredients include garlic, fennel, sage, oregano, pancetta, wine, or parsley.
3. Latin America (Sofrito)
A sofrito, or refogado, is used as a base for many dishes including farofa, vegetables, rice, and beans. Butter, oil, or lard is sautéed with onions and minced garlic until fragrant.
Other commonly added ingredients include tomatoes, hot chilis, and bell peppers. Bacon, saffron, paprika, and oregano also complement this aromatic combination. Refogado uses minced garlic which provides a lovely aroma when you cook it in the kitchen.
Thai curry pastes are bursting with color, flavor, and fragrance. Depending on the dish, they range from mild through to eye-watering hot.
The mix of shallots, garlic, and chilies, combined with cooking oil or coconut milk creates flavor and heat. Extras such as lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galangal add additional fragrance.
Massaman, green, yellow, and red are all types of Thai curries that benefit from a curry paste. Other uses include noodles, soups, seafood dishes, and salad dressings.
Indian cookery is renowned for its aromatic combinations. Each region of India has its own flavor combinations and uses for aromatics. Some dishes are sauce-based with the addition of ingredients like yogurt, coconut milk, and tomatoes. Other curries are dry and incorporate meat or vegetables with an aromatic base.
A common flavor base starts with frying or roasting spices like cumin, cardamom, and cloves. They are then cooked in a pan with ghee or vegetable oil, onion, chili, turmeric, and garlic.
The Chinese often cook food on high heat, and a popular aromatic combination is garlic, ginger, and scallions, cooked in oil. Extra ingredients for adding flavor include chilis, shallots, cilantro, star anise, and chives.
Aromatics in Chinese cuisine vary depending on the region. In the Southern parts of the country, flavors are milder and delicate; in Sichuan, the flavor profile is more extreme, with the generous use of dried chili.
7. Cajun (The Holy Trinity)
The Holy Trinity is a Cajun and Creole flavor combo that uses onion, celery, and green pepper, cooked in lard or butter. Unlike a mirepoix, which has a higher ratio of onion, this Cajun mix uses equal parts of each vegetable. To enhance the flavor profile, additional paprika, shallots, parsley, and garlic are incorporated into the dish.
Savory recipes that benefit from this aromatic combination include jambalaya, sauces, chowder, stews, pot roast, gumbo, and sauce piquant.
8. Middle East
In Middle Eastern cuisine, garlic, onion, green onions, tomatoes, and raisins are often heated in cooking oil or ghee. Additional spices can be added to intensify the vibrant color, fragrance, and depth of flavor. Popular additions include ginger, cumin, cardamom, sumac, baharat, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron.
Aromatics are used in many savory Middle Eastern meals including stews, soups, tajines, and rice dishes.
A summary of popular aromatics
|Country||Name||Fat||Typical vegetables||Popular herbs and spices|
|France||Mirepoix||Butter||Onion, carrot, celery.||Herbs de Provence, thyme, chives, chilies, cilantro.|
|Italy||Soffritto||Olive oil||Onion, carrot, celery.||Fennel, chilies, parsley, garlic, oregano.|
|Latin America||Sofrito||Olive oil||Onion, garlic, chili, bell pepper, tomatoes.||Tomatoes, hot chilis, bell peppers.|
|Thailand||Thai curry||Oil or coconut milk||Shallots, garlic, chilies.||Lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal.|
|India||Ghee or oil||Onion, chili, garlic.||Cumin, cardamom cloves, turmeric.|
|China||Vegetable oil||Garlic, ginger, scallions||Chilies, shallots, cilantro, star anise, and chives.|
|Cajun||The Holy Trinity||Lard or butter||Onion, celery, green pepper||Paprika, shallots, parsley, garlic.|
|Middle East||Ghee or oil||Garlic, onion, green onions, tomatoes, raisins.||Ginger, cumin, cardamom, sumac, baharat, turmeric, cinnamon, saffron.|
8 tips to cook better aromatics
1. Plan ahead
If you’re cooking for a large number of people, reduce the stress by prepping the vegetables in advance. Store everything in the refrigerator until needed in an airtight container.
2. Take care with some ingredients
Use care when handling chili and wash them before touching your face. Chili oil can burn or irritate the eyes and skin. Chopping onions can cause the eyes to sting and water. To stop this, place a glass of water next to the chopping board.
If you enjoy cooking tips then check out our best kitchen hacks.
3. Mix cuisines to create unique flavors
Be creative and fuse your favorite cuisines into one dish. If you enjoy sumac in Middle Eastern cooking, maybe it will also work well in the Indian curry you’re developing.
4. Use a sharp knife
Blunt knives slow prep time and increase the likelihood of injuries. Invest in a sharp knife that will serve many years in the kitchen. We did an in-depth comparison of the Gyuto vs. Santoku knives - both excellent “all-rounder” knives worth the investment.
5. Be flexible
Traditional aromatic recipes like the mirepoix have stood the test of time for good reason. They provide an excellent base for many recipes. But if you’re missing the occasional ingredient, it shouldn’t stop you from making the dish. Also, ratios aren’t set in stone. If you don’t enjoy celery, then consider adding less, or swap it out for leek?
6. Use fresh ingredients if possible
Fresh ingredients are usually best so try to use them when you can. But if you’re short on time, frozen vegetables will also work. They’re also a cheaper option when the fresh variety is out of season.
7. Fat isn’t essential, but it helps
We recommend using fat, but it isn’t always necessary to cook aromatics. For example, Mexicans char vegetables in a dry pan before using them as a base for tomato sauce.
8. Sweating is a good option
Sweat vegetables in a pot to soften them without browning the outsides. Heat everything in a pot with the lid covered. You should also add a little liquid such as broth, water, juice, wine, or oil.
How to prepare aromatics
Before chopping up the ingredients, consider the following questions. They will help you decide what style of cut is best for your dish.
Will the aromatics remain in the dish when served?
If the vegetables will be served as part of the meal then dice them very finely. This technique will allow the veggies to break up in the pan, creating a thick, richer texture. Chopping smaller pieces also creates more surface area, resulting in the flavor being released quicker.
Will the aromatics be removed before serving?
Some aromatics are fished out of the pot before the meal is finished. A good example of this is consommé, which uses chopped vegetables and meat to add flavor. The liquid is used in the meal, while the solids are often discarded so they can be roughly chopped into larger pieces.
How long will the cooking process last?
As a general rule, the longer the cooking time, the bigger the aromatics can be.
- For a stock that will simmer all day, large cubes or halved onions are perfectly fine.
- For a quicker, sautéed dish, cut the pieces as small as possible to speed up the cooking time. Tiny cubes of vegetables are called a brunoise in French cooking, which is the size you want to aim for.
Below is a summary of the best cut size for each type of dish.
|Type of dish||Size of cut|
|Sauces that cook fast||Fine dice (brunoise)|
|Braises or soups||Mid-sized cut|
|Slow cooking||Big chunks|
How to chop vegetables
Vegetable preparation for aromatics is a quick and easy part of cooking with a few simple knife techniques. Check out these instructional videos to help you rustle up a sofrito or mirepoix in minutes.
How to dice an onion
How to cut celery
How to cut carrots
How to cut bell pepper
Each culinary cutting technique has its purpose in the kitchen. As you experiment with different aromatics each night, practice your knife skills at the same time.
You’ll find some are easier than others. For aromatics, important cuts to learn are the small, medium, and large dice. The most challenging and time-consuming technique is the brunoise. Start by cutting long thin pieces (julienne), then dice into cubes no larger than ⅛″ (3mm) in size. French chefs will often brunoise down to 1/16″ which isn’t a skill to learn overnight!
Infographic of culinary knife cuts
European Vs. Asian aromatics
Cuisines influenced by European cooking use traditional flavor bases which comprise of a few vegetables, and occasionally herbs and meat. Asian countries will often use vegetables, herbs, and the addition of spices, to create a wide variety of flavors, colors, and aromas.
In European cooking, base mixes are usually sweated to allow the ingredients to release their flavor into the liquid or fat that surrounds them. Asian-inspired chefs will often sauté the aromatics to seal the flavor in.
Check out our handy graphic which summarizes some of the best flavor combinations from around the world. Once you master these, you’ll be an expert in flavor base creation.
Do you want to learn how to cook without using a recipe? An essential skill to practice is developing layers of flavor into food. Aromatics play an essential part in flavoring many dishes, and they’re quite simple to learn.
Set yourself a new “aromatic challenge” every night for a week. Repeat making those recipes for a few weeks and you’ll have them mastered.
Your next step is to check out our guide to making sauce. We show you the five “mother sauces” which let you make almost any sauce from them.
You may prefer to take a look at our ultimate guide to making ice cream at home. It is suitable for beginners and provides techniques to make creamy ice cream, even if there’s no ice cream maker at home.