Do you keep a salt shaker on the dining room table? More importantly, do you use it on the food on your plate? If so, then I’d like to suggest that you may not be seasoning your food properly. Let’s fix that, shall we?
Most people don’t know how to make food taste its very best. And a lot of it comes down to how the food is seasoned.
First, let’s define a couple of terms: flavor and taste. Even though we often conflate the two, I think of them as quite different.
Taste is a function of the tongue whereas flavor is more a function of the nose. That’s why, when we’ve got a nasty cold and our nose is completely stuffed up, we say we can’t taste anything.
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Also, there’re about three gajillion flavors (chocolate, sage, beef, dirt, rack of zombie, etc.), but there are only five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
All five tastes are receptors for specific chemicals. Consider this in evolutionary terms: It makes sense that, over the millennia, our species would develop the ability to detect or “taste” certain chemicals that are essential to our survival.
Sweet refers to chemicals ending in “ose.” Sucrose. Lactose. Fructose. And, of course, glucose, which provides energy for our cells.
Sour is the taste of acid, like citric acid, a great source of vitamin C.
You already know we need salt. If you doubt that, think of what it’s going to cost to send your kids to college in five years and then take a taste of your salty, salty tears.
Umami was first identified a century ago by a Japanese chemistry professor named Kikunae Ikeda. This deep, rich, meaty taste is about glutamate, a chemical indispensable to our metabolism. Meat, mushrooms and fermented foods like soy sauce are all high in umami. So is breast milk. Think about that: Breast milk, the stuff literally of life, is both high in umami and sweet from lactose. Once again, it makes perfect sense that our species would evolve receptors for these tastes.
Bitter is interesting. It’s possible we evolved receptors for this taste for precisely the opposite reason we evolved receptors for the other four. Whereas our other receptors identify foods we need, the bitter taste is often a marker of things we need to avoid: poisons. Even though it’s present in many foods we love — chocolate, coffee, beer — many toxic chemicals possess a bitter taste.
Now, why do we care? We care because occasionally we taste things and think, “Hmm, this needs something.” Right?
I would posit that most of the time, that “something” is salt. I would posit further that most people don’t add enough salt while cooking. And when I say “enough,” I don’t mean food should taste salty. It shouldn’t. It should taste well seasoned.
And that’s why I disparage salt shakers. When you add salt to your plate, that’s what hits your tongue first and that’s what you’re going to taste: salt. If you have to add salt to your plate of food, it means you haven’t added enough during cooking.
This means you have to season pretty much everything with salt while you’re cooking. (Pepper, by the way, is not a seasoning; it’s a flavoring ingredient.) And you need to keep adding salt as you add ingredients. Take a simple pasta sauce, for example. Season the onions and peppers while you saute them. When you add tomatoes, season them. Browned ground beef? Season it. If the individual components are properly seasoned, the final dish will be too.
At Kendall College in Chicago, where I teach, we have signs all over the kitchens that read “T.A.A.T.” Taste. Analyze. Adjust. Taste. And that word “adjust” most often refers to salt.
Sometimes dishes clearly have enough salt but are still missing something. That’s when I think sour or umami.
Sometimes a dish seems flat. Like a cream sauce or a big stew. Try a little acid, lemon juice or good-quality vinegar. The acid brightens and lightens the dish. Add just enough to let the chemicals do their job.
And if something feels pale and wan or lacking in depth — this happens a lot in meatless dishes like tomato sauces or vegetable soups — get some umami in there. Parmesan cheese (or just the rind) or a little bit of soy sauce — though again, not enough to make the dish taste vaguely Asian – both bring umami and its accompanying depth of flavor. (By the way, that’s why many Chinese restaurants add MSG: Since they rely so heavily on vegetables, their dishes lack the natural umami that would come with a heavier meat presence.)
The moral of the story? Like we say at Kendall: Taste. Analyze. Adjust. Taste.
James P. DeWan is the author of “Prep School,” a collection of his columns.