It’s the last line in so many recipes and perhaps the most misunderstood: “Season to taste”. What exactly does that mean? It sounds like you might want to rummage through your spice drawer and add a bit of this and that until your dish finally tastes like something. If you’ve tried this approach, you know that you’ll most likely end up with a mess, a hodgepodge of flavors.
But there are spices that help improve the taste of almost any dish. And the good news is that these aren’t exotic alchemical substances, but common kitchen utensils that are almost certainly in your cupboards now.
First off, it’s important to understand the difference between spices and flavorings. The latter give a dish a distinctive and identifiable taste. Spices, on the other hand, help bring out the underlying flavors that are already lurking there, waiting to be brought to the fore.
The most useful spices fall into three broad categories: salt, acid, and fat. The judicious addition of even tiny amounts of one or more of these may be all it takes to transform any dish from lackluster to vibrant. Note that I said “considered addition”. The goal here isn’t to add another noticeable taste, but to bring out the flavors that are already there.
Let’s start with salt, as this is the spice most likely to enhance your dish and also most likely to be abused. Salting should rarely make food taste salty (chips aside). Rather, in small doses, salt will reveal hidden depths of flavor that have been masked until now.
After just a few rounds, you’ll notice that the dish doesn’t taste noticeably salty, but somehow seems livelier
There is a scientific explanation for this. Salt is often referred to as a “potentiator” in the literature. That is, a chemical substance that enhances the effects of other substances. Flavor scientists disagree on exactly how this works in cooking, but the explanation most seem to favor is that salt reduces our taste buds’ sensitivity to bitterness, which, although present in very small amounts and very subtle, can mask other aromas.
Technical explanations aside, you can see for yourself the next time you’re faced with an almost-ready dish that somehow still tastes bland. Stir in some salt – just a pinch, even less than a quarter teaspoon at a time. Taste as you go.
After just a few rounds, you’ll notice that the dish doesn’t taste noticeably salty, but somehow seems livelier. There is a happy buzz in your mouth and you perceive subtle flavors that you could not taste before.
Finishing salts such as Maldon or Fleur de Sel are suitable for this, but only just before serving. They don’t actually taste all that different from other salts, but they do differ in crystal structure, which affects how they’re perceived on the tongue. This advantage is lost if they are melted into the dish.
Another seasoning solution for a boring dish is acid. Whether it’s from citrus, vinegar, or another source, acidity adds structure to a dish. Imagine it providing the backbone that other flavors hang on. Again, the goal is not a dish that tastes tart. You want to add just enough so that what seemed dull and messy is brighter and sharper defined.
I find this particularly useful with stews and soups. The long, slow cooking that creates such a wonderful marriage of flavors sometimes overpowers and you end up with a seemingly indistinguishable mess. A splash of vinegar will do the trick.
That bit of fat gives the dish a silky texture that makes it seem more delicious
Unlike salt, which is a single, fairly uniform spice, acids can also act as a flavor. For example, I find apple cider vinegar softer and more subtle than, for example, red wine vinegar. Asian rice vinegar has an intoxicating sweetness. The various citrus fruits add a subtle hint of fruit (note the word “subtle”: most of the distinctive citrus flavor is in the oils found in the peel).
If the dish doesn’t seem bland and muddled, but rather thin and confused, some fat may be the answer. Give it a try the next time you make a quick cook pasta sauce. Stir in a dollop of butter or a drizzle of good quality olive oil just before serving and taste the difference.
That little bit of fat gives the dish a silky texture that makes it appear more delicious (taste scientists call this “mouthfeel,” a term I find a little creepy). And the deeper, meatier flavors add a unifying bass note to the blend of flavors, a foundation that holds together what previously seemed disparate and confused.
While all of these tricks can improve a dish, it’s important to remember that they are nothing more than last-minute tweaks that assume careful, thoughtful cooking has come just a hair short. As always, great taste requires tasting and adjusting a dish at every stage. It is built from the ground up, not with a spate of last-minute makeovers.