Cooking is definitely an art. No matter how much time you spend in the kitchen, there’s always more to learn, more to try, more to experience and more to appreciate. Seasoning and flavoring is one area in particular that takes patience, time and dedication. You won’t become a master overnight, but implementing a few basic strategies will cut down the learning curve and set you up for success. Practice makes perfect, but only if you are working with the right fundamentals.
When it comes to seasoning and flavoring basics, here are a few pointers you can keep in mind:
- Don’t be afraid to use salt
- Pepper always comes in handy
- Best to add acidic ingredients toward the end
- Cold foods may need extra seasoning
- When you add herbs matters
- Adding a savory boost to your meal makes a difference
The correct methods can and will make a big difference in your cooking. On the flip side, however, you can quickly ruin a dish. Since seasoning is so vital to the cooking process, some people get intimidated of find it overwhelming. Those who choose to stay in their comfort zone and/or season with the bare essentials are missing out on all of the adventure. So let’s have some fun and go through it together.
The Basics: Seasoning or Flavoring?
The first thing to clear up is whether seasoning and flavoring are the same thing. The truth is, they both improve the taste of food. The job of each one is slightly different, though.
You use seasoning to bring out the natural flavor of the food without changing the original flavor. If you use seasoning correctly, you shouldn’t taste the seasoning specifically. Instead, the taste of the original food should just be enhanced.
Think of a soup where no salt was added (bland) versus a soup where a little bit of salt really makes it pop. The flavors are strengthened, but not changed.
Flavoring, on the other hand, is something that changes or modifies the flavor of the food. For example, you might add a liqueur to a dessert. In this case, you can probably taste both the added flavor and the original flavor.
Most of the ingredients we’ll cover can be used as seasoning or flavoring.
Do’s and Don’ts of Using Salt
Salt sometimes gets a bad rap, but used in moderation, it’s actually one of the best seasonings you can use in cooking and baking.
The key, as mentioned, is moderation. Believe it or not, the small amount that you use in most home cooking is not going to add much to your overall sodium levels. Ultimately, leaving it out will do more harm than good. Our bodies need some salt to function properly, and so do recipes.
Salt is necessary for enhancing both flavors and textures as well as masking less agreeable tastes. It’s also vital for drawing moisture out of meats and vegetables. Lastly, salt tends to affect protein bonds in a way that results in more tender eggs and steaks.
Even a small amount makes a big difference in the ultimate taste of your finished product.
Tip: Don’t leave out the salt! If you’re really concerned about your sodium intake please cut back on processed foods like frozen entrees, condiments and canned goods instead.
Which Salt Should I Use?
When it comes to using salt in cooking, your first question might be, “Which salt do I use?” It used to be that table salt was the seasoning everyone reached for in the cupboard but now there are at least a dozen options when it comes to salt. Take a look at some of the varieties and sub-varieties:
- Table salt
- Kosher salt
- Sea salt
- Himalayan pink salt
- Celtic sea salt
- Fleur de sel
- Kala namak
- Flake salt
- Black Hawaiian salt
- Red Hawaiian salt
- Smoked salt
- Pickling salt
Wow, that can get overwhelming very quickly. But it doesn’t have to be. For most home cooking, we only recommend 2 types: Kosher Salt and Himalayan Pink Salt.
What about sea salt? We don’t readily recommend sea salt for most home cooks because there can be issues with microplastics and overall purity. Just think about how dirty our oceans are – plastic, trash, oil, chemicals, fuel, heavy metals and other nasties are all prevalent.
In general, your best choice for cooking is kosher salt. Good quality kosher salt is less likely to contain anti-caking agents (yellow prussiate of soda) and other unnecessary additives. Just check the ingredients on your label. If it mentions something other than salt, we tend to avoid it. Our favorite, Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, is used throughout thousands of restaurants.
Kosher salt is flakier and coarser-grained than regular table salt. This makes it easier to pick up and control the flow with your fingers. In addition, larger flakes help prevent over-seasoning. Since the salt crystals are bigger, it actually takes a bit more to reach the same level of saltiness as regular salt because it is less concentrated. As an example, a good rule of thumb is to use a ratio of 1.5 to 1 if you’re trying to substitute it for table salt.
So, why is kosher salt the best for cooking? Simple, it is more pure and extremely versatile. Some of the other salts mentioned above may be a better option for one or two dishes but, overall, kosher salt is going to do the best all around job.
Himalayan pink salt is also a great option. It has a reputation for being healthier than its white counterpart, but the research is debatable. Nevertheless, we just love the color and taste. For this reason, it is our “finishing salt” of choice. Meaning we add it to provide a final blast of crunch, texture and flavor as a finale to dishes and salads before serving.
How Much Salt Should I use?
How much salt you should use when cooking can sometimes be an overwhelming question. It’s very easy to put too much salt in a meal and ruin it, so most home cooks err on the side of caution and end up putting too little salt in a recipe . . . which has its drawbacks as well.
How much salt to add isn’t so much a science, as it is a preference, but here are some general guidelines you can consider:
|One pound of vegetables:||½ tsp to 1 tsp|
|One pound of meat, poultry, or fish:||¾ tsp to 1 tsp|
|Soup (if using water or low sodium broth):||½ tsp to 1 tsp|
|Baking:||Follow recipe exactly|
When Should I Add Salt?
The final question a cook faces in the kitchen in regards to salt is when to add it? The best time is in the beginning – so it has time to get into the food and enhance the flavor – but don’t stop there! Taste your food as you’re cooking and add a little more salt as you go. Continue adding and tasting until it’s just right. Practice makes perfect.
Tip: If you forget to add salt in the beginning you can still add it at the end, but only add a fraction of the amount called for because it obviously won’t be absorbed in the same way. That means you’ll notice it as soon as you take a bite rather than having it enhance the whole meal.
Pepper it Up
Pepper, salt’s soulmate, is also a very useful seasoning in cooking. It also has some science-backed health benefits, take a look:
- High in antioxidants
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- May improve brain function
- Aids in digestion
- May lower cholesterol
In the UpGood Testing Kitchen it goes on almost everything, and it’s no wonder why. Pepper is one of the most commonly used spices in the world!
Common ways we use it:
- Add to salad dressing that has salt, olive oil, or cider vinegar
- Add to egg dishes
- Season fruits like strawberries or pineapple with a bit of pepper
- Add it to soups, stocks, sauces, marinades, and stews
- Flavor homemade hamburgers and sausages
- Use as a rub on meat, poultry, or fish before cooking
- Season seafood
When you add it is important as well. Add early for less punch and at the end (like finishing salt) for a flavor explosion.
One final tip, skip the ground black pepper sitting on the shelf and opt for whole peppercorns. Nowadays, many options even come in a cheap grinder so you can grind the pepper out fresh as you need it. Whole peppercorns last longer and are much more flavorful and pungent as well. Our favorite? Tellicherry of course.
Just as important as salt in making a meal pop are acidic ingredients. “Acid” may not sound very appealing when you think about in relation to food, but we’re talking things like lemon, vinegar and wine.
Not every recipe needs acid, but if your final result tastes a bit boring, it is likely missing a little splash of some acidic ingredient. Acidity sharpens flavors that already exist in your dish, and calls out to others who may be a bit more shy and need a little coaxing.
There are a lot of options for acidic ingredients out there. Which one you use depends on the rest of your dish. Take a look at some possible acidic ingredients:
- Citrus (lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange)
- Other juices (pineapple, apple)
- Vinegars (apple cider, balsamic, champagne, sherry)
- Wine and other alcohol
- Sour cream
You generally don’t need to add much, maybe an eighth of a teaspoon or so.
As far as when to add acidic ingredients to your recipe, it depends a bit on what you’re cooking. In general, juices and vinegars work best when added toward the end just before serving. Especially, with soups and sauces. This is because if you cook the acidic ingredient for too long, it can concentrate the flavor and overpower the dish.
Here are a few instances where it’s okay to add citrus juices or vinegars earlier:
- Baked goods
- Meat marinades
When it comes to using wine or other alcohol, however, you can generally add it earlier in the cooking process. This will allow it to cook off, reduce and disperse more evenly without causing your dish to taste like you just took a shot.
Cold Food Considerations
You may not have thought about it much before today, but what you season, how you season and when you season all play roles in your kitchen. Surprisingly, temperature actually matters as well.
Cold or chilled foods can taste dull. Think about Aunt Karen’s potato salad. On second thought . . . seasoning might not even save that.
For the vast majority of us, however, cold foods can benefit from a little extra love.
Season before chilling, then taste before serving. Some more salt, pepper, fresh herbs or vinegar might be just what you need.
Using Herbs While Cooking
Herbs are a whole dominion of their own in the cooking world. There are a lot of questions when it comes to using herbs while cooking. Fresh or dry? When to add? How to store?
We can’t tackle it all right here and right now, but let’s take a peek behind the curtain.
Fresh Herbs vs. Dry Herbs
You’ll probably hear some people say that it’s a horrible idea to ever use dry herbs over fresh. Others might swear by using dry herbs. Alas, a double conundrum. The right answer is: it depends. That sounds like the easy way out, but bear with me for a minute.
Take a look at this table for a quick comparison:
|Dry Herbs:||Convenient; affordable; longer lasting|
|Fresh Herbs:||Fresh tasting; visually appealing; aromatic|
With all that being said, there are times when fresh is always best. That’s because some herbs lose their flavor in the drying process. On the other hand, though, there are times when using dry herbs works to your advantage and the flavor actually becomes more concentrated.
Remember when I said, “It depends?” This table should help clear things up.
|Fresh Herbs are Best||Dry Herbs are Best|
· Dill weed
· Bay leaves
Note: for dried herbs that become stronger, you can substitute less than the amount called for fresh to account for their pungency. 3 teaspoons of fresh thyme could equal 1 teaspoon dried.
When to Add Herbs to Recipes
Dry herbs need more time to release their flavor and oils. Generally, you’ll add them early on in the cooking process.
With fresh herbs, you have to take their hardiness into consideration.
Stronger herbs are better added in the beginning, in order to allow their texture to mellow and reach maximum flavor potential.
Delicate herbs are better added toward the end, otherwise you’ll lose color, flavor and style points.
How to Store
There are a couple of other tips to keep in mind when it comes to herbs. Follow these steps for storing your fresh herbs to get the most out of them:
- Don’t wash them before storing; wash just before use
- Wrap them in a damp paper towel
- Seal them in a resealable plastic bag
- Put them in the refrigerator
Dry herbs have a few guidelines of their own:
- Store them out of the light in a cool, dry place
- Replace dry herbs each year
- Place a small sticky with their date on the bottle so you can keep track of when to toss
Adding a Savory Boost to Dishes
You’ll hear the word “umami” frequently used in cooking circles. If that word means nothing to you, let me explain. It is Japanese for a pleasant, savory taste. Some even consider it the fifth basic taste alongside the standard sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.
If your recipe needs just a bit extra, adding a little “umami” or a savory boost may be just what you need. There are some great options for adding this boost to your dishes. Take a look at some possibilities:
- Soy sauce
- Ripe tomatoes
- Worcestershire sauce
No matter how you add these ingredients, they should give your recipe that savory flavor that keeps people coming back for more. If you’re not quite sure how to add them, though, check out these ideas:
- Splash some soy sauce into your recipe
- Sauté vegetables in a bit of tomato paste
- Add chopped mushrooms to a dish
- Worcestershire tastes great on steaks, burgers and chili
I’m sure these tips seem like a lot to remember but it’s important to keep in mind that great cooking doesn’t happen overnight. You have plenty of time to perfect your skills with every dish that you make. Do your best to keep these basics in mind but when you mess up, remember all is not lost. All great chefs were once good cooks.
If you skipped to the bottom, yeah I’m talking to you, here are some key takeaways:
Don’t leave out the salt
Whole peppercorns are your friend
Season at the beginning, taste often, then add as you go until peak perfection is reached
And last, but not least . . .
– Have Fun In The Kitchen