Seasoning to taste
Seasoning is at the heart of cooking. Depending on your ingredients, or your mood, you will need to adjust salt and spices for every recipe. For some seasonings, like chile or salt, people’s preferences may diverge quite a lot, and they’ll need to adjust their recipes. The only way to do this is to taste the food as you cook. A surprising number of people never actually taste what they’re cooking while it’s cooking, or before they serve it. It’s worth going over what we mean when we repeatedly say “season to taste” or “salt to taste”.
Pretty much all the measurements for seasoning given in this blog are very rough. Few of the people in the Normandie kitchen measure anything. The good news is, seasoning gets intuitive after a while. The better news is, even if you are unfamiliar with seasoning, it’s pretty easy to get it right. It just means you need to taste as you go.
Rules of thumb:
First — start with about half the amount the recipe calls for, or you think you’ll need. Mix it in, and taste. Add more, and taste again. Keep going until you like it.
Second — be careful about ground spices, and especially chile. The flavour from these takes a little while to go through the food. When you season, taste, and immediately reseason, it’s easy to overshoot. If you have any doubts, start with less than the recipe calls for, let it cook together for five minutes or so, and then taste and reseason.
Third—the rules about seasoning apply to dressing salads. There’s nothing worse than a goopy, drippy salad. Eugh. Add dressing, toss, and then add more until it tastes nice.
Fourth—taste as you go. There’s no way around this. Unless you carefully follow a carefully written recipe, you’ll have to use your own judgment. And even then, ingredients and cooking conditions will always differ, day to day, even in the same kitchen. Most recipes will taste good at every stage, if it’s going well. And you’ll learn over time how things should taste, and how to adjust.
When recipes say “salt to taste”, they mean something quite specific. You don’t want food to actually taste salty, but salt is a very important contributor to the way we perceive other flavours. It can make sour things taste sweeter, for instance. Most importantly, salt acts with protein (especially browned meat), or ingredients like mushrooms or tomatoes, to make things taste rich—umami.
Salting appropriately takes a bit of experience, but salting enough is one of the most important skills you can learn in the kitchen. As described above, start slowly, and keep tasting. At some point, the flavours will just pop, without the food tasting like salt.
There are caveats to this. You should salt in stages, as you add ingredients to a dish. Otherwise you won’t be able to taste it properly. But be sparing. Cooking concentrates flavours. Finish salting right at the end, before serving.
Some common seasonings are salty on their own, and you should exercise the same care as you do with salt itself. Fish sauce (nuac mam), soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and Vegemite (okay, maybe not so common) are all intensely salty. Season accordingly.
Potatoes — are like sponges for salt, and other seasoning. You will probably have to re-season food after you add potatoes, and again as they cook, since potatoes absorb so much salt. One of us (Matilde) notes that you can take advantage of this, if you oversalt something like a soup or stew. Bung in a potato, cook it a little longer, then get rid of the potato.
Meat — You (mostly) shouldn’t be eating raw meat of course (but see kitfoh!). Happily, there is a way around this. If you’re seasoning a ground meat dish, like meatballs, you can stick a little bit in the microwave and heat it to sizzling. Then, taste it for salt and other seasoning.