- Are you confused by the salt to taste, or season to taste, recommendations in recipes? What exactly does that mean? And what if I don’t like much salt and you do? How do I know what , “to taste” tastes like?
If you are like me, I always ignored these recommendations until I learned a chef’s practice that I’d like to give you the inside scoop on. It’s called looking, smelling and tasting as you cook. It doesn’t need to be intimidating, you just need to practice!
Here’s how you do it:
1. Taste early and often (also realize you don’t have to swallow to taste). Tracking how flavors and textures change over time and discovering what is a good balance of flavor will be the difference between following recipes and actually cooking! It’s a game-changer.
2. The easiest and safest way to “correct” a dish is to take a small amount of it – maybe a spoonful or two – into a small bowl and taste it.
3. Now, add just a touch of something you think could be lacking – it’s ok (and also fun) to just guess here if you have no idea! After adding your “something”, taste again. Do you like it better? If you do, add just a bit more and taste again, etc. You get the idea. It’s ok to go too far here, because it’s just a small amount and you have not ruined anything. Now you have taught yourself what that dish tastes like both under- and over-somethinged! (I like making up words!)
4. A little help here. The most useful place to start is with adding salt. But you can also adjust a dish with:
- Something sweet
- Something acidic
- Something bland
- Something rich
- Something spicy
5. Having corrected the dish on a small scale (no risk!), you can now confidently adjust the whole dish. But be sure you are still tasting as you go! Obviously, the difference in amount is to be determined, yes?
Once you have somewhat mastered this technique, you can proceed to more nuanced alterations. A dish doesn’t have to be desperate for correction to benefit from some small adjustment. Consider the following:
– a pinch of salt can heighten the flavor of your stew or saute.
– a bit of vinegar or citrus juice can improve flavor or just bring a bit of brightness or fresh taste to a dish.
– a splash of cream (dairy or not) can round out a sauce or soup or stew.
– a bit of reducing of a liquid ingredient can intensify flavors.
– a splash of a strategically chosen liqueur can add an intoxicating appeal to a vinaigrette or sauce – like chartreuse with a grapefruit and endive salad, frangelico in a hazelnut cookie or brandy in a rich pan sauce.
Tasting as you cook is the very first step (and most critical one) to developing your inner cook! It gives you the ability to imagine which flavors and spices go well together and allows you to experiment with confidence. The more you practice tasting as you cook, the better you will understand how each addition affects the flavors and textures of a dish.
I used to think that salting early and often, which is the trained chef’s way, was just an avenue to oversalting food and wasn’t necessary, especially for those who want to reduce their salt intake. I believed that an individual can adjust the salt “to taste” at the table and that would lead to less salt use in general. And we all know that Americans ingest far more sodium than they should, health-wise. And for the most part, I still believe that slightly under-salting is better than over-salting. That’s what sea salt placed on the table is for!
But, I have since discovered a few situations where salting early actually makes a lot of sense and can make or break a dish. Bear with me as I lead you through just a bit of science here…
Initially, salt draws moisture out of cells of either meat or vegetables, which makes you think it would dry them out. But, this trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells will re-absorb that moisture in something called reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is now seasoned with salt and whatever else you may have added (spices, liquids). Therefore, salt actually assists in the movement of flavors into your food.
An example of when this process would be important is in marinades or brines. Marinades can be used for both meats and vegetables. If you haven’t marinaded your vegetables before grilling or roasting, it could be a real game changer for you! Just remember that you want to marinade harder vegetables (like carrots and potatoes) a bit longer than softer vegetables (like eggplant or bell peppers).
Here, I am including a recipe for easy homemade pickles. These are just slightly sweet and highly spiced and are ready in a few hours, although they are even better in a week. These are not “canned” so need to be refrigerated and will not last indefinitely, but I have eaten them up to 3 months later. I would recommend a 2 months to be on the safe side! I tend to push these things!
Let me know if you make these or if you have any thoughts on seasoning to taste! I’d LOVE to hear from you!
Homemade Refrigerator Pickles
- Quart-sized glass jar with lid
- 1 English cucumber sliced on the diagonal
- 1 large carrot sliced on the diagonal
- 1-2 fresh serrano peppers cut into 2-3 pieces, optional
- 1/4 head medium cauliflower cut into florets
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 2 cloves garlic smashed
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/2 teaspoon whole red (or pink) peppercorns optional
- 1/2 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 bay leaves optional
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric optional
- 3 sprigs fresh dill weed
- Prep all vegetables according to ingredients list
- In a medium saucepan, bring the 1 cup of water to a boil, reduce the heat so the water simmers and add the smashed garlic cloves. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar, salt and sugar, raise the heat and bring to a boil, stirring until the salt dissolves. Remove from the heat. Add the peppercorns, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, bay leaves and turmeric (if using). Stir well.
- In a clear, clean 1-quart (or 1 liter) jar, place the sprigs of dill. Pack the jars full of cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower and serranos. You want it to be tightly stuffed. Try to get as much in as you can but depending on the size of your vegetables you may not be able to fit all of it. That's ok.
- Bring the brine barely back to a boil, pour it over the vegetables to cover completely, let cool, then cover and refrigerate.
- The pickles will taste good in just a few hours, better after a couple of days, and they'll keep for about 2-3 months (although they get less crispy as time goes on).