I often hear chefs commenting that a dish is perfectly seasoned, or not seasoned enough, but for a long time this essential art of cooking was also a mystery to me. But gradually, I realized that seasoning is about tasting and tweaking, fine tuning to bring out the best in the food.
Seasoning is about enhancing the flavour of your food mostly by adding salt and pepper, but, while salt and pepper are often added to a list of ingredients, not all recipes quantify how much to use, not least because it's invariably a matter of personal taste and the sensitivity of our taste buds.
Although herbs, spices, sweet or acidic ingredients are also considered
seasoning, it is salt and pepper that are in the front line.
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: Does this taste delicious as it is? Or are the flavours a little dull? Would it taste (even) better with some salt and pepper?
If you’re unsure, take out a small sample and add 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 judgment.
If you don’t have a pepper mill, you can use one of those supermarket disposable bottles of peppercorns.
There is no substitute for the
fragrance of freshly ground pepper...and use the best black peppercorns you can
For salt, there are two kinds:
(a) Inexpensive fine sea salt for bulk seasoning things like pasta water or for making brine, commonly sold as table salt.
(b) Sea Salt flakes, usually Maldon or the beautiful Halen
Mon sea salt from Anglesey, that have a lovely large flake structure that makes
them perfect for crushing over things at the last minute.
In France, of course, there are many places renowned for
producing salt (Fleur de sel) – from the Camargue to the Atlantic coast. So,
whenever you visit, stock up on some.
We’ve all been a bit heavy handed with the salt at times, and, to be honest, the only way you can fix serious over-salting is to dilute the dish.
Which can be tricky unless it’s a soup or stew.
Serving with unsalted
accompaniments, like mashed potato made with unsalted butter, or skipping the
salt in the pasta water can help.
When you sprinkle salt on ingredients, it tends to draw out moisture, so consider whether you want that to happen, or whether it is better to delay seasoning until further into the cooking process.
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.
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 – or get a second
If you’re making a filling for pies, remember that it’s
going to be eaten with the pastry so a bit more salt may help things along.
The colder things are, the duller the flavours (or, rather,
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.
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.
Also, in my experience, people who smoke have dull taste
sensitivity, and are almost certain to need more salt.
As we've already covered, you can put it in but you can't
take it out; so best to season gradually.