How To Make Vegetables Taste Good: Flavor Pairings & Cooking Strategies

It’s easier said than done to eat the recommended 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. In my experience as a registered dietitian, it seems fruits aren’t as challenging – they’re naturally sweet, don’t require cooking, and many types of fruit can easily be packed with you.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are a bit of a challenge. The flavor of vegetables can range from pretty mild to downright bitter, and they aren’t always as convenient as fruit.

If you’re aiming to increase your intake of nourishing, colorful vegetables, keep reading for some of my best tips for making vegetables taste good enough that you actually want to eat them!

How to Make Vegetables Taste Good

There are so many tips and tricks to making vegetables taste better. There’s no need to invest in fancy cooking equipment, expensive ingredients, or drastically change the way you cook and eat at home. Start with these suggestions and experiment until you find a strategy that works for you.

Before you know it, you’ll be craving the amazing flavors of perfectly cooked vegetables!

How to Cook Vegetables for Better Flavor

As I mentioned before, vegetables can often have a bitter flavor in raw form. Of the five basic flavors  – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – sour and bitter are often the ones hardest to get on board with.

The bitter flavors can come from the very nutrients in vegetables that we’re trying to get more of. Ironic, isn’t it? But antioxidants, certain proteins, and other compounds found in plants are actually for protection and growth, not flavor. After all, the vegetables we eat today were cultivated from what were once wild plants in nature. With time, we could select the specific traits we want, such as nutrient profiles, color, texture, disease resistance, drought tolerance, and more.

Here are some cooking methods that might help you tone down the bitterness and make your veggies taste better. What do they have in common? High temperatures! When you cook vegetables over high heat, you can get a slight caramelization effect. The result is browning around the edges. Some of the molecules in the veggies are converted to simple sugars, helping them taste less bitter or slightly sweeter.

Tip: This caramelization effect is different than the very specific Maillard reaction, although it’s sometimes used interchangeably to describe the flavors that results from cooking over high heat. The Maillard reaction, such as the browning on baked bread or the searing on steaks, occurs between amino acids (proteins) and reducing sugars (carbohydrates). Caramelization can refer to a variety of different chemical reactions that create sweet, nutty flavor profiles in foods.

Try these cooking techniques:

Grilling or Smoking: This works particularly well during warmer months. If you’re firing up the grill or smoker for other recipes, why not throw some vegetables into the mix? The high heat and smoky flavors can add a distinct charred flavor that you might enjoy.

Roasting: This is another high-heat cooking method that brings out the best flavors in vegetables. Use a sheet pan and spread cubed or chopped veggies in a single layer. Don’t overcrowd your pan, as moisture will release during cooking. They will wind up mushy or soggy if they’re packed in too tightly. Leave enough space for air to circulate in between and you’ll see the browning effect you’re looking for!

Sauteing: This stovetop cooking method often uses oil to help prevent sticking. My top choice? Butter. I mean, butter makes everything taste better, but as it cooks, it goes through a browning reaction of its own. It’s a very simple way to make vegetables taste better.

Air Frying: Air fryers surged in popularity this year so if you have one, put it to good use! Similar to roasting, the air that circulates around vegetables as they cook can improve the texture and overall flavor.

If you have other preferred cooking methods, or limited time and equipment, don’t worry! This next section offers useful tips for seasoning your vegetables for better flavor, regardless of how they’re cooked.

How to Season Vegetables for Better Flavor

Seasonings are one of my favorite things to play around with in the kitchen. Using fresh or dried herbs, spices, oils, vinegar, cheese, and other ingredients can totally change the way a recipe turns out.

Sometimes we get stuck in a rut when we’re cooking vegetables. If salt & pepper (and maybe a little garlic) just aren’t doing it for you anymore, get creative with some of these suggestions for:

Leafy greens: chili sauce or chili oil, infused vinegars, horseradish, green onions, red pepper flakes, sesame seeds

Carrots, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash: allspice, anise, browned butter, cumin, honey, mint, orange (juice or zest), tarragon, thyme

Mushrooms: capers, cilantro and coriander, fennel, lemon (juice or zest), rosemary, tarragon

Broccoli, cauliflower, or other cruciferous vegetables: curry powder or garam masala, hollandaise sauce, mint, white pepper, pine nuts, mustard and mustard seeds

Potatoes: basil, cilantro, dill, garam masala, marjoram, paprika, sage, vinegar, yogurt or sour cream

This approach can work for veggies in any form. Fresh, frozen, canned, you name it! For some reason, it took me a while to figure out I could enhance the flavor of frozen and canned veggies by seasoning them just like I would if I were cooking them fresh.

I really recommend picking up a copy of The Flavor Bible or the plant-based version, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. These are my most used books in the kitchen because they explain how to pair flavors together for delicious results. I find combinations I never would have thought of! Plus, it helps me use up ingredients I already have, which means I waste less food.

You can also create your own spice blends using your favorite combinations. Keep it in a small shaker or jar on your countertop, and you’ll never have to reach too far to inject delicious flavor into your vegetables.

And now I’ll let you in on my #1 seasoning hack for making vegetables taste better: MSG.

Yes, MSG or monosodium glutamate. It adds so much delicious umami (savory) flavor that I rarely cook vegetables without it.

It’s unfortunate that MSG has been cast as a “bad” thing for foods. I see far too many “made without MSG” labels on food packages and in restaurants, which is disappointing. I think of all the flavor they’re missing out on! MSG is safe to consume (we have the science to prove it). And since it can actually reduce added salt in recipes by 30 to 60%, it seems like an obvious choice. Flavor plus better nutrition? That’s a win-win for me!

Another unique ingredient I’ve recently started using more often: liquid smoke. A little bit of this stuff goes a long way, so a small bottle can last quite a while. But it adds a savory, smoky flavor to cooked vegetables that will make them feel like you just pulled them out of the smoker on a summer day. I recently used it in this Smoky Sweet Potato Mash (made in the Instant Pot) and it was a big hit over the holidays!

But cooking and season strategies aren’t the only ways to make vegetables taste good. Vegetables can also taste amazing depending on how you serve them!

How to Serve Vegetables for Better Flavor

Finally, you can make veggies taste better when you serve them in ways you enjoy. I use all of these methods in my kitchen. I have a feeling they’ll work for you, too!

With a dipping sauce: Think beyond the classic veggies + ranch…I mean, ranch does make veggies taste better and I encourage you to add it whenever you want to! But dipping sauces can span the entire flavor spectrum too and balance the tastes and textures in very complementary ways. Check out my Maple Mustard Roasted Brussels Sprouts to see what I mean!

With a dressing: Vegetables don’t have to be in a salad to get topped with dressing. I rely on the Honey Mustard Vinaigrette that I used on this Lentil & Grilled Vegetable Salad for so many things! Try mixing your own DIY dressings at home with unique oils and vinegars, or turn to your favorite store-bought versions for convenience.

With a pickled element: If you’re feeling more adventurous, this pairing is for you. Pickle brining liquids range from super salty or sour to mildly sweet and tangy. Depending on the type of vinegar, herbs, and spices used, it can add a whole new layer of flavor. And don’t limit yourself to traditional dill pickle flavors. My Quick Pickled Cucumbers and Onions are one of my most popular recipes and they use a sweet and tangy rice vinegar brining liquid.

So there you have it. Some dietitian-approved methods for making vegetables taste good! And “good” is a loose term – in my opinion, these are surefire ways to make them taste amazing!

Whether you have a picky eater on your hands, want to expand your taste horizons, or simply want to get out of a flavor rut, I hope you’ll try some of these tips.

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