How to "Season to Taste"

"to everyhting there is a season" - ecclesiastes 1

Only joking!

A common, almost obligatory, instruction in recipes is “season to taste” but this is quite a broad direction and I am often asked ...

What does season to taste mean?  

Well I looked it up on Merriam-Webster and according to them it means …

“to add as much salt or pepper or as much of a spice or herb
as one likes so something tastes good”

What a surprise – although I might add acid, sugar and a few more, see below, to this definition. Being able to season a dish properly is one of the most important skills of a chef so here's some guidance.

For most of my cooking life (quite a long while, actually) it has been generally accepted that there are 5 basic flavours that we can taste;

Salty * Sweet * Sour * Bitter * Umami

Recently, it has been suggested that we humans can identify other tastes; fat and pungent and/or astringent, but I am not going to deal with these here, probably soon though!

Seasoning with Salt

sea salt, kosher salt, crunchy saltSalt is amazing stuff, not only does it make food taste, umm … salty, it can also bring out the sweetness of a dish (think salted caramel – yum!) and it can even reduce bitterness, as in when you add a pinch of salt to coffee.  You do that don’t you? If not give it a try!

Which salt to use?

When I am salting potatoes for boiling, seasoning a sauce or adding a pinch to my coffee I use table salt.  When I am seasoning meat or adding a sprinkle to a finished dish, I normally use Maldon sea. In the US kosher salt, which is similarly flaky, is frequently used. 

Salty ingredients to balance a dish include ...

     ~  Olives
     ~  Capers
     ~  Anchovies
     ~  Prosciutto (prosciutto butter is a great way to add salt to a dish )
     ~  Salty cheese such as Feta
     ~  Soy sauce

Salt can be added at different times whilst preparing a dish ...

Salting Before Cooking

Adding salt at the start of cooking has a different effect than salting at the end; it infuses the whole dish. Two ways to add salt at the beginning are add salt to water when cooking vegetables, pasta, rice etc. and sprinkling salt onto something to be cooked over dry heat such as meat or fish. Although salt is known to draw juices out of meat (and anything else) salting immediately before cooking is nevertheless a good thing, it adds flavour and doesn't have time for any juice-drawing so salt before roasting, frying etc.

Interestingly enough, if you salt large pieces of meat long enough in advance the salt will indeed draw out some of the juices, but they will then be reabsorbed right into the centre of the meat thus seasoning the inside!! Rub a spoonful of sea salt into a joint of meat and leave for 4 or more hours before cooking. Smaller cuts of meat, duck breast for instance or steak, will benefit in the same way from salting say 20 minutes for the duck breast or 40 for a steak, before cooking. Wipe the meat surface before continuing so that you get a good sear and see here for how to make a delicious pan sauce from browned meat juices.  

Salting During Cooking

If you add something new to the dish such as cream, stock, or anything really, add a little more salt.

Salting After Cooking

Once cooked, whatever it is, season “to taste” thus ~  taste, add a little salt, taste, add another pinch of salt, taste again, repeat till it is delicious. You are not aiming for a saltier taste but a brighter one with the sweet and bitter elements balanced out by the salt. Repeat till the food tastes exactly how you like it!

Most people have salt and pepper on the table when serving so diners can also make small adjustments.
add something sweet or acidic to fix a salty dish

Seasoning with Sweetness

how to season food with sweet ingredients, sugar, honey, syrup
At first it might seem strange seasoning savoury foods with sweet ingredients, but a touch of sugar can give a real boost. Consider the many table sauces we use with savoury foods which contain high levels of sugar – mint sauce, tomato ketchup, sweet chilli sauce etc. Caramelised onions are gorgeous in many savoury dishes.

Adding just a little sugar makes salty things taste less salty and sour things taste less sour – a little brown sugar can be great in beef dishes see this recipe for Korean Bulgogi  and sugar or a sweet ingredient such as tomato ketchup makes a tomato based dish even lovelier.

Sugar is the obvious sweet ingredient here but choose appropriately; dark brown sugar goes well with beef and gives a caramel taste, light brown sugar is a bit butterscotchy, white sugar is probably the best all purpose taste. 

Sweet ingredients to balance a dish include ...

     ~  Sugar
     ~  Honey     
     ~  Maple syrup     
     ~  Jam     
     ~  Fruits - sweet ones, not citrus, cranberry or pineapple           ~  Dried fruits     
     ~  Caramelised onions
if food too sweet add sourness or bitternes, not salt
Oddly enough, if a meal is too sweet don’t try to balance it by adding salt – as I said above salt can make things taste sweeter. Instead add a squeeze of lemon or lime or a dash of vinegar as appropriate.

Seasoning with Sourness

squeezing lemon juice into a dish to balance out sweetness or spicynessA dash of citrus juice or vinegar can really brighten a dish, in fact if you are nervous about too much salt when tasting and seasoning try a squeeze of lemon. It will also balance out too much sweetness or spiciness.  

Sour ingredients to balance a dish include …

     ~  Lemon and lime juice
     ~  Canned tomatoes (fresh too but not so much)
     ~  Vinegar – lots to choose from so select one that goes with what you are cooking!
     ~  Sour cream and buttermilk
     ~  Tamarind paste
add cream, butter or something sweet to balance an acidic dish

Seasoning with Bitterness

dark chocolate can balance an over sweet dish

Bitter flavours can be used to balance rich or over-sweet dish for instance a dash of coffee in a sweet chocolate dessert. 

Bitter ingredients for balancing a dish include …

     ~  Coffee
     ~  Unsweetened cocoa and very dark chocolate
     ~  Citrus peels 
     ~  Olives
     ~  Grapefruit
     ~  Horseradish.

add something sweet to balance bitterness

Seasoning with Umami/Savourines

marmite is an umami rich ingredient, adds depth to food

Umami is apparently Japanese for savouriness or a pleasant savoury taste which was identified as a basic taste by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 but it seems to have been some while before we adopted the word. I was happy with savoury! I’m not going to go into details here, but it is something to do with glutamate

These savoury ingredients add depth to your food. 

Umami rich ingrediets include …

     ~  Marmite (apologies to American readers, didn't mean to frighten you!)
     ~  Soy sauce 
     ~  Parmesan cheese, Blue cheese & Cheddar cheese
     ~  Mushrooms generally and dried shiitake mushrooms in particular
     ~  Anchovies
     ~  Worcestershire Sauce - because it contains anchovies 
     ~  Dry-cured ham 
     ~  Tomatoes
     ~  Oyster sauce 
     ~  Miso
     ~  Beef broth

… and I think reading this list you can imagine the type of taste I am referring to. If you add one or more of these ingredients, as appropriate of course, to your cooking you will give it a real flavour boost.
add someting bland if meal is too overpowering, cream rice, bread

Important when Seasoning Cold Dishes

chilled foods must be highly seasoned

219 (and then some!) Brilliant Ideas for Leftovers

I have just updated the page on my book on leftovers, have a look here Creative Ways to Use Up Leftovers

On the original page I had included several (or maybe even many!) links to posts on Sudden Lunch concerning leftovers and I don’t want to waste them, so I’m listing them here instead!

don't just reheat leftovers, make something new from them

Of all the foods in the world leftovers are my favourite ingredient and using them my favourite way to cook.  If I find myself with random bits and pieces to use up I am delighted and often inspired; I enjoy the challenge of making them into a good meal and then I enjoy eating it! 

This is a fun and economical way of discovering new ideas and dishes; sometimes the result of playing with leftovers is so pleasing that the end product becomes a regular dish.

I mention leftovers in many, many Sudden Lunch posts, here is a list of the main ones, in no particular order! 

     ~   Recycled Biscuit Cake

     ~    Cold Porridge ~Yum! (Seriously) 

     ~   You’ve Got to try this with Stollen!

     ~   7 Ways to Use Leftover Polenta 

     ~   What to do with Leftover Soup!  

     ~   Ideas for Leftover Pâté 

     ~   15 Ways to Use (Not) Leftover Honey 

     ~   10 Delicious Ideas for Leftover Asparagus 

     ~   How to Use Leftover Easter Eggs 

     ~   10 Interesting Ways to Use Pastry Scraps plus a Boring One

     ~   8 and a Bit Ways to Cope with an "Unwanted" Bottle of Port

     ~   How to Use Every Part of a Chicken

     ~   9 Ideas for Leftover Baked Potatoes plus Fartes de Batatas!

     ~   15 Ideas for Marzipan Trimmings 

     ~   Ideas for Leftover Haggis including a Few Sensible Ones! 

     ~   64 Ideas for Leftover Cheese plus a Joke!

     ~   7 (+) Interestingly Different Ideas for Leftover Bread

     ~   Got Leftover Hot Cross Buns Lurking about the Place?

     ~   There is No Excuse for Discarding One's Banana

     ~   50+ Brilliant Ideas for Christmas Leftovers 

     ~   Hamming Around with Prosciutto Scraps!

     ~   18 Ways to Use Up "Leftover Wine" ~ Deliciously! 🍷 Cheers!

I'll probably add more as I remember or write them so save this page and check back occasionally!