As I was attempting to proof-read my new e-cookbook recently, I realised that they are probably the two most repeated words, well maybe after tablespoon and cup. But arguably the most important instructions in any recipe method.
Which got me thinking about when I was getting into cooking. I remember always being nervous when I came to the bit in a recipe when it said ‘season to taste’. I knew that meant adding salt and pepper. But how could I possibly know how much? For years I’d just add a few grinds of pepper and a pinch of salt and hope for the best. That was until I had a bit of a seasoning revelation.
I was travelling in Mexico and signed up for a 1 day market tour and cooking class just outside the beautiful city of Oaxaca. I was expecting the most enlightening part of the day to be the bit when we ate chilli and lime fried grasshopper. But I was wrong.
As we broke up into groups to cook our assigned dishes, I was a little underwhelmed by the thought of making a fish soup. But as my team got going, we had a heap of fun. When the instructor came round to check on our progress, we were proud to announce that the soup was done.
After tasting, she inquired as to whether we’d seasoned it and got us to taste as well. I thought it was pretty good, but at her insistence we added a more salt. A second taste and the difference was staggering. With our instructor’s encouragement we continued to salt and taste. Each time the soup tasted more alive and vibrant, not salty but fresh and good.
It was then that I realised that this is what seasoning is about – tasting and tweaking – or fine tuning to bring out the best in the food. After that, I felt more confident with the whole seasoning thing and began to experiment with my own cooking. I like to think of seasoning as an art that I’m continuing to practice and improve.
what is seasoning?
Seasoning is about improving the flavour of your food mostly via the addition of salt and pepper. Although herbs, spices, sweet things and acidic things can also be considered seasoning, we’ll focus on salt and pepper for today.
how do I go about seasoning a dish?
There are two main times to think about seasoning – the beginning and the end. For slow cooked dishes it’s a good idea to get some salt in early so it can spread through the whole dish over time. For most other things seasoning at the end is the best way to go.
Before you serve, have a little taste of your dish and ask yourself these questions:
i. Does this taste delicious as is? Or are the flavours a little dull?
ii. Would it taste (even) better with some salt and pepper?
If you’re a little unsure, you can take out a little sample and add some salt and pepper to it. Taste and compare to the original. If it tastes better, add salt to the dish. If not then you’re ready to serve. It’s all about backing yourself and trusting your judgement.
what should I use?
If you don’t own a pepper grinder, at least get yourself one of those supermarket disposable bottles of peppercorns. There is no substitute for the fragrance of freshly ground pepper. I like to use the best black peppercorns I can afford, as I find that white pepper has a faint air of B.O. about it. But it’s up to you.
For salt, I keep two kinds.
i. Inexpensive fine sea salt for bulk seasoning things like pasta water or for making brine.
ii. Sea Salt flakes, usually Maldon that have a lovely large flake structure that make them perfect for crushing over things at the last minute.
Iodised salt is great for people that don’t get any seafood in their diet and might be iodine deficient, but I prefer to eat fish and have my salt clean tasting.
what happens if I overdo it?
We’ve all been a bit heavy handed with the salt at times. Although I can’t remember ever having a pepper overdose.
To be honest about the only way you can fix serious over-salting is to dilute the dish. Which can be tricky unless it’s a soup or stewy type thing. Serving with unsalted accompaniments, like mashed potato made with unsalted butter, or skipping the salt in the pasta water can help.
The best bet is to serve lots of water and hope nobody notices. The power of suggestion can really sway peoples’ taste perceptions so best not to alert your diners to the over-salting situation.
other seasoning tips
think about the saltiness of your ingredients
One of the best ways to anticipate whether you’re going to need any extra seasoning is to have a think about how much salt each ingredient is contributing. If there are a heap of olives, anchovies, capers or bacon, for example, the dish will probably already be sufficiently salty.
beware of taste saturation
Remember that when your taste buds have been exposed to something a few times, they become less sensitive to those flavours. So if you’ve been tasting and tweaking for a while, it’s good to have a break and a glass of water, and ideally take 5 minutes out of the kitchen. The other option is to get a second opinion from someone else.
consider your accompaniments & the end use
If you’re making a filling for pies, remember that it’s going to be eaten with the pastry so a little bit more salt might not be a bad thing.
allow for the serving temperature
The colder things are, the duller the flavours (or really the less we perceive them). Best to taste and season at the serving temperature if you can, otherwise try and allow for differences in temperature.
consider individual preferences and sensitivities
Everyone is different. People who rarely eat salty food will be more sensitive than those who eat out all the time. Likewise, younger people tend to be more taste sensitive than the elderly. The answer is to season as much as you think it needs, but serve some salt at the table for your guests to fine tune, if desired.
always err on the ‘less is more’
As we’ve already covered, removing excess salt is pretty much impossible, so best to season gradually.
it’s OK to expectorate
One of the most useful skills I learnt during my time as a winemaker was how to spit like a champion. Now I know the thought can be a little gross for some people, I’d much rather spit as I’m tasting and seasoning and still feel like eating when I sit down to dinner, rather than that feeling of being absolutely stuffed before the meal has even begun. It’s up to you really.
More Seasoning Resources
Butter Beans with Tomato & Chorizo
This dish is an absolute favourite of mine that I blogged about back in 2008. I’ve actually streamlined it over the years so that it’s now in the 5 ingredients | 10 minutes league. You’ll be happy to know that this version tastes just as good, if not better than the original – a fact verified by a certain Irishman when I made it for the photo the other day.
One of the things that has really cut down on preparation time, is the discovery of Barilla’s arrabbiata pasta sauce. I’m not usually a fan of preprepared sauces, but this one has a lovely tomato-ness without any of the fake herb flavours or sweetness you normally see. If you have a preferred pasta sauce brand, please go ahead and use it. Or if you prefer to do things from almost-scratch, substitute in a tin of tomatoes and allow an extra 10 minutes or so for them to simmer.
I love these beans for brunch. Sometimes if I know there’s a big night on the agenda, I’ll cook up the beans and have them ready to warm up in the morning and finish off with a fried egg, some toast, and a little restorative green salad – the hangover breakfast of champions (!) It’s also delicious on its own as a simple beans on toast supper.
For a vegetarian version, skip the chorizo and substitute in some smoked tofu and a tablespoon of smoky paprika.
1 chorizo (approx 150g / 5oz), sliced into coins
1 can butter beans (400g/14oz), drained
1 cup Barilla Arrabbiata sauce, or other pasta tomato sauce
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 bunch chives, finely chopped
Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over a medium high heat. Add chorizo and cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes or until browned on both sides.
Add beans, sauce and vinegar. Simmer for a few minutes until everything is hot. Taste and season (!) Stir through chives and leave some to sprinkle on top.
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