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What Are Aromatics, and Why Do We Cook with Them?

Jambalaya by Cafe Delites, corn chowder by Natasha's Kitchen, and beef barley soup by Spend with Pennies.
Cafe Delites/Natasha’s Kitchen/Spend with Pennies

Adding aromatic ingredients is an easy way to create loads of fresh flavor in any dish you’re cooking. But what exactly are “aromatics,” and how do they work their magic?

You’ll find that the most soul-warming recipes usually call for fragrant combinations of onion, celery, carrots, garlic, and more. This is because, once they’re softened in a bit of oil, the intense scent of deliciousness flows freely into the air, creating a mouthwatering invitation to dinner.

Let’s explore some of the most popular aromatic foods, and how you can use them when you’re whipping up your next meal.

What Are Aromatics?

Three little bowls filled with aromatic ingredients including onion, celery and carrots with oil in the background.

An “aromatic” is an herb or vegetable that give a dish additional flavor and aroma, hence the name. Each aromatic vegetable or herb offers differing flavors. When the ingredients are combined, they work unitedly to give off a delicious quality your meal will always welcome.

You’ll notice these aromatic ingredients are almost always cooked in some fat, too. That’s because once they begin to sizzle away, the flavor and scent are released, which in turn builds the foundational flavor within your meal.

Aromatics round out the overall flavor, all while boasting unbelievably intoxicating aromas into your kitchen. It’s the exact reason you see onion and garlic in so many recipes and why your meals always taste (and smell) better when you add them.

Typically, you combine vegetables, herbs, and spices to create an aromatic flavor palette for a dish. Contrasting sweet, earthy, or even pungent, ingredients join forces to create delicious combinations.

Some examples of aromatics include:

  • Vegetables: Onions, carrots, celery, green bell pepper, leeks, garlic, shallots, and scallions are all very common.
  • Herbs: Recipes typically call for thyme, basil, dill, oregano, chives, fennel rosemary, sage, and bay leaf. You’ll also find chervil, cilantro, tarragon, and mint in recipes that need stronger flavors. Some herbs, like bay leaf, are taken out before serving. Ginger is also often used in Asian cuisine as an aromatic ingredient.

Milder ingredients, like tomato and parsley, are also sometimes classified as aromatics.

Popular Combinations

There are several combinations of aromatic ingredients used in various cuisines around the world. Three popular examples are:

  • Mirepoix: This French combination features carrots, celery, and onion. You’ll often see it used in classical cuisines, like the five mother sauces.
  • Sofrito: This is a combination of tomato, garlic, onion, and bell peppers, along with some herbs. The ingredients are typically blended into a thick paste-like sauce and used in many Spanish and Latin American dishes.
  • Holy Trinity: A Cajun combo that uses onion, carrots, and green bell pepper. If you ever make an authentic gumbo or jambalaya, you’ll notice both famous Louisiana dishes call for this combo—it’s where that soul-satisfying flavor and aroma start.

How to Use Aromatics

A stock pot filled with carrots, chicken, bay leaf and various aromatics on the side.

Aromatic ingredients are used in various ways. Some recipes call for uniformly chopping them up, while others ask for rough chops or adding them whole.

Recipes like hearty chowders and stews will add aromatics like carrots, onion, and celery and keep them in as part of the final dish. In these recipes, the aromatics are intended to release additional flavor throughout the cooking time and while eating.

Smaller pieces also tend to release additional flavor in a shorter time, so whipping up a quick chowder doesn’t take long to reach that delicious flavor.

The same reasoning goes for a dish like a hearty beef stew. The pieces added are often larger than bite-sized, but these dishes will simmer for hours, giving the aromatics more than enough time to release flavor.

Some recipes call for removing aromatics before serving because the veggies or herbs have already done their job infusing the dish with its aromatic properties. This is done when making something like a stock.

Now that you’ve learned a bit more about aromatics and how to use them in your cooking, it’s time to put that knowledge to use in a few recipes.


Two images of jambalaya by Cafe Delites.
Cafe Delites

This New Orleans one-pot recipe is often made to celebrate Fat Tuesday and offers intense flavor.

The combination of bell pepper, onion, and celery  (aka, the holy trinity) is a staple in Cajun cuisine, and this recipe is one of the most famous examples of it.

Espagnole Sauce

A small serving dish filled with hot espagnole sauce with a whisk and peppercorns on the side.

Espagnole sauce (aka, brown sauce) is another fine example of rich and tasty flavor, all derived from aromatic ingredients like onion, carrots, celery, bay leaf, and peppercorns. You’ll notice the small-chopped aromatics are removed in this classic recipe.


Beef Stock

Two images of beef stock made by Recipe Tin Eats.
Recipe Tin Eats

Here’s a great example of how aromatics are added to a dish whole, and then removed before eating.

There’s no need for fine-tuned knife skills or fancy chopping because a stock takes everything almost in total natural form, then transforms into a rich broth meant for soups, stews, and so much more.

Corn Chowder

Two images of corn chowder by Natasha's Kitchen.
Natasha’s Kitchen

This recipe takes mirepoix in a uniformly chopped size before it simmers away. However, you’ll keep these ingredients in your soup, as they are a quintessential component to any hearty chowder.

We also love the fresh use of chives as an aromatic finish to an already well-flavored meal.

Vegetable Beef Barley Soup

Two images of vegetable beef barley soup by Spend with Pennies
Spend with Pennies

This beef barley soup is similar to chowder, but uses chopped onion, garlic, celery, tomato, and green pepper, along with thyme and bay leaf for additional flair. It’s an immensely flavorful meal that’s sure to fill up your belly.

Has all this talk about aromatics made you hungry? Good! With fall quickly approaching, it’s time to put your new knowledge to work in some warm, creamy soups—you can even whip some up in your Instant Pot.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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