When we cooks encounter the phrase, “season to taste” the natural inclination is to reach for the salt. However, some diets discourage salt and, when handled poorly, salt can be overwhelming. If you can taste the salt you’ve seasoned too heavily. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m anti-salt. Far from it. A well-timed sprinkling of the stuff can be the key to deep flavor. After all, James Beard called salt the “sovereign of seasonings.” When used judiciously salt disappears into the overall flavor of a dish.
Especially during the cooking process. I have no problem with salt as seasoning.
I do have a problem with diners who reach for the saltshaker as soon as they sit down, however. First of all too much sodium is not good for most people. Besides, your meal should arrive at the table well seasoned. Give the cook some credit. Of course, there’s room for disagreement and personal preferences – but please, oh please – taste before you salt. Especially if you’re eating at my house.
That said I thought we should talk about what “season to taste” or really just “season” actually means.
Season to Taste
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 goals differently.
Salt brings out the potential in food and boosts the qualities that already exist. 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 becomes part of its construction. Whereas salt enhances, the acidity builds. If we’re talking houses here – salt would be paint and acidity would be lumber. But this analogy falls short because the structure in cooking can come at any one of many places along the road.
Housing, Roads… I sound like a politician. I hope you can follow along anyway.
Sometimes the adding of acidity is built right into the recipe in subtle ways. So don’t skimp on or skip them entirely. When a recipe says to de-glaze the pan with wine don’t 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, de-glazing gets those flavor bits unstuck, but we use wine for other reasons than its fruity flavor. We use it for the acid it brings to the sauce.
There are other useful ways to add acidity to a dish. Each has its own character and each has a place on your permanent shopping list.
Vinegar is one of the best. A teaspoon of vinegar stirred into a cream-based soup at the last minute can be transformative. That’s why vinegar lives right on top of my stovetop, right next to 3 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 vinegar can be had at reasonable price points. So splurge. Try all kinds. You deserve it.
Citrus (especially lemon) is another useful cooking acid. Citrus is great at “brightening” almost anything. It can cut through some of those full-mouth-fatty-flavors and adds much-needed balance to cloyingly sweet fruit recipes.
There are other “seasonings” besides salt and acid. They all reach for the same effect in a recipe and you should experiment with them too. 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.
Sugar can also become a seasoning agent. A pinch of plain old granulated sugar can balance a recipe. Especially acidic recipes. A sprinkling of sugar in tomato sauce is the perfect example.
So experiment. If you’re 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. Your soup pot will stay pristine – waiting for that moment when the right seasoning makes itself known to your palate. This is when everything comes together, and you experience that wonderful moment of taste. Ah, taste! GREG