There are two types of recipe followers: those that are compliant to the “T”, and those that “wing it” by focusing on the basic picture and then either use their past experience or sheer love for adventure and conjure up what they hope will result in a delightful meal.
I am both of the above. When it comes to baking, I am a compliant follower – too many flops have taught me that. But when it comes to cooking, I tend to wing it more than 80% of the time, particularly when it comes to the seasoning part.
A lot has to do with experience. I cook almost every day. I love good tasting food. With flavors that enhance and exquisitely elevate the wholesome nourishing goodness of the real food you are preparing.
And I love variety. With our multi-cultural background, my cooking has been infused with the spices and aromas of the European, African and Asian cultures, they all have a lot to offer. But they have also taught me how spices can enhance every dish you create, even in its most simplest form, and sometimes a pinch is just what it takes.
Believe me, I have had plenty dishes ruined by being over-zealous with my shakers, so the one basic rule I now always apply (well, at least 99% of the time), is this: START SLOWLY. Then TASTE. Then ADD more if necessary. TASTE again.
Tasting in between each spice application serves 2 purposes – it helps to prevent a ruined dish, and it teaches you what to look out for, and to figure out what you need to add.
Sound simple? Let me ask you this. How many taste sensations are there? Do you know where in your mouth you taste sweet? Can you distinguish between what is bitter and what sour?
Shaking your head? I can relate. So let me help you out a bit.
There are 5 basic taste experiences we can identify with easily: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and something called “umami”. More on that one later. Fat needs to be added on the side line, but no less important. Allow me to explain.
For starters, we would not be here if our ancestors had not learnt how to distinguish edible from toxic food. If certain plant foods caused a bitter taste sensation, that usually signaled a red flag – poison!
Only as adults do we learn to differentiate between – and actually relish – a slightly bitter taste as desirable. Show me which child enjoys dark chocolate, radicchio and arugula salad? Can you think of when you first began enjoying a nice herbal liqueur as an after-dinner drink? (so good for your digestion by the way)
Back then, if any meat was past its sell-by-date, it would give off a strong sour odor or taste, again alerting our fore bearers to the possible danger of food poisoning.
Notice the emphasis on “strong”, as slightly sour is actually beneficial – take fermented and cultured vegetables and dairy for example – as this really stimulates our digestive juices and helps to break down tissues and fibers in vegetables and meats, aiding overall digestion.
Marinating mixtures should always contain some form of acid such as lemon juice, orange juice or vinegar, as this not only tenderizes the meat, but also allows the flavors of the spices to unfold fully.
There is also mounting evidence that marinating meat can reduce the formation of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines, which are substances formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures, such as grilling or frying. Include a good dose of ginger, garlic and turmeric in your marinade for an extra cancer-fighting boost.
Today, we decide a dish tastes absolutely delicious if a combination of the above 5 taste experiences blends well, and we cannot easily distinguish any one of them as too overwhelming.
The most popular taste sensation involves SWEET. Right from the get-go we are primed to like this stuff, if any of you fellow women out there tried your own breast milk whilst nursing, it’s sweet! Most fruits contain sugar in the form of fructose, what a natural way of satisfying that sweet tooth. (Note: in case you are fructose-sensitive, as some of us are, we should limit – not avoid – our fruit intake).
The basic form of sugar is glucose, and that is what is found in all the starchy veggies and grains. Our body needs glucose for a healthy metabolism, some organs like our brain depends on it, so it was vital way back when that we associate sweet with survival. Of course in our modern times we have re-defined what we consider vital for our survival in terms of sugar, but that’s not the topic of discussion here.
How do we add healthful sweet to our dishes, not just baked goods, but also salads, stews, stir-frys? With a touch of pure, grade B maple syrup, agave nectar, honey or even stevia. Especially to augment a bitter tasting dish, like our leafy greens for example. Just a ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon of agave nectar will do. Or try Mirin, a naturally sweet Japanese wine found in the Asian spice section.
A nice counterbalance to sweet is of course SOUR, and this is most often found in the addition of acids, such as lemons or limes, or even some vinegars such as balsamic (drizzled over sautéed veggies, yum!), apple cider, brown rice, red wine or ume plum vinegar, a fermented plum vinegar.
Sometimes, when you taste a dish and find that something is still missing, don’t reach for the salt, rather try adding ½ teaspoon or more of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and you may just be amazed at the difference.
The foundation of spicing is of course SALT, a high-priced commodity on well defined and guarded salt trails just a few hundred years ago, carrying the same value as gold did. Why? It ensured survival! That’s how most food was preserved prior to the advent of refrigeration.
Salt on its own tastes…well, salty. That’s it. It’s what salt does to the surrounding that elevates the dish. Salt unlocks a myriad of flavors in the food, it enhances its natural tastes, and that’s why adding some salt can complete a dish.
Moderation is key of course, as you never want a dish to taste like salt, right? If you find you have been a little too zealous with the salt shaker, a good rule of thumb is to either add some grated potato or egg white, both of which you remove before serving. They absorb excess salt, but only in moderate amounts. So if you dropped the entire shaker, forget it. It’s done.
Now let’s get back to this “UMAMI” taste – it was discovered and given its name only in 1908 – compared to hundreds of years ago for our better known flavors above – by a Japanese chemist who isolated the flavor “meaty, savory” and realized that the release of the amino acid glutamate tickled a different taste sensation in us humans.
A study measured glutamate in breast milk and amniotic fluid and found the levels to be relatively high! So even before we are born we are exposed to umami, and view it as a pleasant sensation, judging from the newborn’s facial expression in the study.
The food industry has made heavy use of this new trend, and the infamous MSG – monosodium glutamate – was added to many processed and fried foods to enhance its flavor. This still remains a controversial and heavily studied topic, as it has been shown that the synthetic variety can cause health issues in sensitive individuals.
Natural umami flavoring include adding browned onions, dehydrated tomatoes, mushrooms, sea vegetables like kombu and even parmesan cheese.
Lastly, let’s not forget FAT. Fat is a flavor carrier. As it coats your tongue it carries with it the different flavors – sweet is felt more at the tip of the tongue while bitter and sour more towards the back and sides.
With a little fat, you are able to taste the flavors more fully. It also adds a certain richness to a dish, and you feel more satiated.
Fat received such a bad reputation in the 80’s, thank goodness we realize today that our body needs healthy fats, in moderation, but on a daily basis. Imagine a Mediterranean pasta dish without olive oil, an Asian curry without coconut oil, and a world without chocolate (cocoa fat).
Expert Chef Rebecca Katz uses her signature phrase FASS when it comes to unlocking the flavors in a dish. It stands for Fat, Acid, Salt, and Sweet. Use these 4 basics in your kitchen and you will always be able to create a bland dish into a sensation of Yum.
So then, what does “season to taste” do for you when you are not a seasoned chef…yet? I use it often in my recipes, as quite plainly what I like may not necessarily be quite to your liking.
I have trained myself – and yes, you can do that – to appreciate sweet with only a little amount of sugar, and to really enjoy and actually crave bitter rather than sweet. I cannot tolerate milk chocolate anymore, or any store-bought cookies or cakes, they are way too sweet for my palate.
Similarly, I like spicy foods, but not to the degree where my eyes begin to water, I still like to taste my food.
So when writing, or copying, recipes, “season to taste” means you are actually challenged to figure out what taste rocks your boat. If you don’t know what the dish is supposed to taste like in the first place, if it happens to be something completely new to you, revert back to FASS, and play with it until you like the flavors. Don’t forget to taste in between! And always start in small doses, ¼ or ½ teaspoon, then take it from there.
I almost never like the spice recommendations in any recipes I try out, and will add or subtract spices as I go along.
If, after reading this you still feel challenged to season to taste, use these 4 simple seasoning aids: sea salt and black pepper, lemon juice, maple syrup (if sweet is required) and extra virgin olive oil. They will add balanced flavor to any dish, and are a good base to start off with.