Season To “Taste”

I was recently reading Dash Of Stash a great blog out of Chicago. The hero of the story had been invited to a brunch in his building. He’d temporarily let the date slip his mind and found himself in a time crunch and with an obligation to bring food.

His solution was a smoked salmon tartare (nice…). As he hurriedly gathered (more like hunted) and assembled his ingredients. He came across that moment. We have all been there.

He had spent a considerable amount of time, energy and from the sound of things, a pretty penny getting to this moment. As he leaned over his bowl, the city skyline and sparkling lake in view outside his kitchen window (okay, I am editorializing here somewhat). He took in the deeply savory aroma of his smoky creation and he put a spoonful into his mouth. This is the moment of “taste”.

Something was missing. Now this is no big deal. So he did not panic. This is why the phrase “season to taste” was invented. It’s that last shining moment when the cook gets to tweak his culinary baby into it’s peak performance.

He began to reach for the salt. Because surely “season to taste” means salt and possibly pepper. Right?

Wrong. And my hero in Chicago (whom I’ve never met) knew this too. He put his brain aside and trusted his instincts. How could smoked salmon with capers need more salt? It doesn’t make sense.

His solution was lemon. A big spritz of lemon brought his tartatre home where it belonged and everyone at that brunch lived (or at least ate) happily ever after.

I am sharing yet another stolen story with you because I want to make a really great point.

Now there is nothing wrong with salt. A well-timed sprinkling of the stuff is often the key to deep flavor. Especially during cooking. 

But I do have a problem with diners who reach for the saltshaker as soon as they sit down. Your meal should arrive at the table well seasoned; give the cook some credit. But, of course, there is room for disagreement and more salt could be just the thing. But, please, oh please…taste before you salt. Especially if you are eating at my house.

That said I thought we should talk about what “season to taste” or really just “season” actually means.

There are two well-accepted forms of seasoning. Salt is one. But the other is less understood and holds the key to balance in cooking. I am talking about acidity.

To your taste buds adding salt and adding acidity may accomplish the same goal—the food tastes better. But these ingredients accomplish their goal differently.

Salt brings out the potential in food and enhances the qualities that already exist in that food. It makes beef taste beefier. Eggs taste eggier and sweets like caramel and chocolate far more sublime.

But acid acts in another way altogether. Acid adds to the fabric of a dish. It is part of its construction. It adds structure.

Whereas salt enhances, acidity builds. If we were talking houses here salt would be paint, acidity would be lumber. But this analogy falls short, because structure in cooking can come at any one of many places along the road. Especially at the end.

Housing, Roads… I sound like the Obama Stimulus Package! I hope you can follow along anyway.

Adding acidity is a balancing act. Just like salt you (usually) don’t want to taste it in the final product. But its effects should make themselves known. So taste as you go is our mantra. But I know you knew that.

Sometimes adding acidity is built right into the recipe in subtle ways. So don’t skimp on or skip them entirely. When a Beef Rib Roast recipe says to de-glaze the pan with wine. Do not simply substitute one liquid for another and think that by getting all those yummy bits off the bottom and into the sauce that your mission is accomplished.

Sure, deglazing gets those flavor bits unstuck, but we use wine for other reasons than this or it’s fruity flavor. We use it for the acid it brings to the sauce. Tomatoes act much the same way.

There are many useful ways to add acidity to a dish. Each has it’s own character and each has a place on your permanent shopping list.

Vinegar is one of the best. Vinegar lives on my stove top, right next to 2 kinds of salt and my “everyday” olive oil. There are so many to choose from. You could start a collection. Though I doubt it would ever rival mine. Unlike some silly over the top price tags you can find on olive oil. Really good vinegars can be had at reasonable price points. So splurge. Try all kinds. You deserve it.

But if this economy has you cutting back on your expenditures; then try and keep just one bottle of very good red wine vinegar in the house. I stress very good because some of those grocery store varieties can be just too astringent.

Citrus (especially lemon) is another great acid we use in cooking. Citrus is great at “brightening” almost anything. It can cut through some of those full-mouth-fatty-flavors and will add much needed balance to cloyingly sweet fruit recipes.

There are other “seasonings” besides salt and acid you can use as well. They all reach for the same effect in a recipe and you should experiment with them. Some of these ingredients are regional or unique to one style of cooking. Asian fish sauce or its Italian counterpart, Colatura di Alici are good examples of this. So is lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf.

There are many types of pepper (or chilies) that are very good frameworks in a dish. You can break out of stereotypes too. Ancho chili can add a depth of seasoning to decidedly North of the Border recipes.

So experiment. If you are afraid of ruining your beautiful soup with the wrong seasoning, then pull small amounts out at a time and add just a hint of whatever seasoning strikes your fancy. No harm no foul. Your soup pot stays pristine and ready for that moment when just the right seasoning makes itself known on your palate. It’s when everything comes together, and you experience that wonderful moment of taste. Ah taste!


Greg Henry