A while back, I wrote a post called the absolute beginners guide to the art of seasoning. Wanting to keep things simple, like a good minimalist, I focused on seasoning with salt and pepper.
But there is a whole lot more to the seasoning story. Like I said previously, seasoning is about improving the flavour of your food. And while salt & pepper are two of the most commonly used seasonings, we cooks have some other very important tools that are often overlooked. I’m talking about the balance of sweetness and sourness, or acidity, in food.
While the warm and wonderful Thai people have been all over the balance between sweet, sour, salty and heat for ages, it’s something that I actually learned to appreciate during my years as a winemaker. At winemaking school we did many experiments where we would ‘doctor’ a wine with different types and amounts of acid. We’d then taste the different samples to see which ones were best. It was incredibly enlightening to see the difference that sourness played in the wine.
It was more than just tasting more tart. At the optimal acid level the wine would be more bright and alive on the tastebuds. It would sing. But the other benefit was that the mouthfeel of the wine would change as well. If the standard was very low on acid it would tend to feel oily and flabby in the mouth. Add some acid and the change was remarkable. The very same wine could feel thirst-quenchingly crisp.
It dawned on me, that the ability of acid to change flavour and texture must also be relevant in food. So I began to pay more attention to the use of sour things in my cooking as well. And I haven’t looked back really. It’s amazing how a little vinegar can bring to life something like the canned lentils in the recipe below. On their own, they taste fine – all earthy and comforting. But with a little vinegar you have a dish that really shines. Try it for yourself some time.
tips for seasoning with the sweet and the sour
choose an acid with an appropriate flavour profile
Most sources of acid for use in cooking have a unique type of flavour. Think of the difference between limes and lemons, or between a delicate sherry vinegar and a super-concentrated balsamic and pick the best one to work with your dish.
choose a sugar with an appropriate flavour profile
While brown sugar can add a lovely caramelised flavour along with some sweetness, it can clash with the delicate freshness of something like a passionfruit dessert. Then of course there is always balsamic vinegar which covers the sweet and the sour in one hit.
get creative with your sources
While it can be easy to just reach for a squeeze of lemon or a spoonful of sugar, sometimes it can be more fun to add an element to a dish that will provide the sweetness or sourness you’re looking for. This can add variety so that not every mouthful is the same. I love a dish that has different bursts of flavour. Think about using fruit or dried fruit in savoury dishes. Or using acidic ingredients like fresh tomato, rhubarb, slices of lime or lemon or marinated anchovies for a little sour buzz.
gently does it
If you overdo the sweetness or the sourness, they can be used to balance each other to a degree. So if there’s too much acid, a little sugar can help and vice versa. But this is far from ideal. Better to season carefully and avoid the need for corrective measures.
taste before and after
Don’t just assume that you’re going to need the sweetness or sourness. Taste first and ask yourself whether it is good as is or whether it would benefit from some more sharpness or more sweetness.
beware of taste saturation
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.
don’t forget about the salt & pepper
Be holistic in your seasoning approach and remember the importance of s&p. If you missed it, there are a heap of basic seasoning tips over here.
More Seasoning Resources
[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
warm lentils with brussels sprouts & proscuitto
I need to confess that I’ve been developing a serious lentil addiction of late. And tinned lentils have been coming to the rescue on so many occasions. The secret I’ve found it to treat them gently and only cook enough to heat them through, otherwise they have a habit of turning into lentil mush.
For a vegan version you could easily ditch the proscuitto and replace it with almonds or walnuts or even pecans.
If you haven’t eaten pan fried brussels sprouts before, don’t be afraid. Unlike the over-boiled, smelly sprouts that my Mum used to cook, pan frying results in a lovely sweet, mildly cabbagey flavour. I’ve been able to convert many a sprout hater with this method, so be brave and give it a go.
2 cloves garlic, peeled & finely sliced
300g (10 oz) brussels sprout, bottoms trimmed & finely sliced lengthwise
1 can lentils (400g / 14oz), drained
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 slices proscuitto, optional
Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a medium frying pan. Cook garlic over a medium-high heat for about 30 seconds or until starting to brown.
Add sprouts and stir fry until soft and slightly golden on the edges, about 6 minutes or so.
Add lentils and stir until warm. Remove from the heat. Taste and season with salt, pepper and the red wine vinegar. Scatter over proscuitto, if using.