With “hyphen-jobs” becoming more and more common, even on boats larger than 100 feet, many crew with no formal culinary training have suddenly found “chef” to be part of their revised job description. For a relatively inexperienced cook, it can be frustrating to diligently follow an appealing recipe only to reach that ambiguous last step that reads: “Season to taste.” You taste away and say to yourself, “It needs something...,” but what?
The first step in effectively adjusting seasoning is to understand how your sense of taste works. Different parts of your palate pick up on five presentations of flavor; sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory. When food has subtle components of all five, your entire palate will light up and the dish will not be perceived as producing any one sensation – meaning it won’t register as merely salty or sweet – it will be “flavorful.” So the key is to make sure all five sensations come into play.
For example, chocolate is sweet, with a tinge of bitterness and a creaminess that makes it a bit savory as well. Though it is good by itself, dip a berry in it, which registers sour notes, and tastes totally different from plain chocolate. Dip a pretzel in chocolate and the flavor intensifies differently. This happens because more of your palate is being stimulated.
When you want to season a recipe “to taste,” try to go through the checklist of flavors and adjust accordingly. Here are a few tips, tricks and secret ingredients used by professional chefs.
Iodized salt is very salty and over-salting is the most common seasoning faux pas. Most professional chefs will use either kosher salt or sea salt, which have a much mellower presentation of saltiness. Reserve the iodized salt for the salt shaker.
Dijon and Pommery mustards will add both salty and bitter flavors to a recipe. Mustard is the ingredient that makes Caesar salad so intensely flavorful. It is a great addition to marinades and savory salads like tuna salad or pasta salad.
Depending on the type, soy sauce can possess a combination of saltiness and bitterness or saltiness and savory. Premium soy sauce like shoyu or tamari are more savory. The Americanized varieties are darker and more bitter (which is a good way to adjust both the seasoning and the coloring of a sauce).
Try adding a pinch of sugar to savory sauces. Tomato sauce is very receptive to small increments of sugar. Brown sugar is a good option because it is a little bitter, too.
Molasses is what makes brown sugar brown. Liquid molasses is a wonderfully diverse secret ingredient. Especially good for red meat and grilled food or BBQ, it is rather bitter but very sweet. Best to add it sparingly; its flavor is intense. It caramelizes and burns easily, but adds amazing flavor when seared or grilled.
Adding a touch of acidity is a great way to wake up a very sensitive part of your palate. Lemon juice is great for sweet or salty dishes. Balsamic vinegar helps balance dishes that are on the sweet side. Any easy way to add a touch of acidity is to use hot sauce, which is mostly vinegar. Used sparingly it won’t add much heat. (Spicy heat causes the taste buds to swell, which makes food seem more flavorful.) A splash of wine also will bring some acidity to the party.
Sherry is a unique wine in cooking because it adds creaminess and a savory component to a recipe. It always comes in handy when you reach the point in a recipe where you start saying, “It needs something.” Some chefs say the use of sherry is “cheating” because it is an easy way to feign flavor. A little splash goes a long way.
There’s a reason celebrity chef Paula Deen begins nearly every recipe with a stick of it. Butter is the Grand Poobah of savory flavor. Just ask anyone French. Start with a few tablespoons and work your way up if necessary. Butter is great for sauces, soups, vegetables or just brushing over a finished chop to add a touch of flavor and a nice sheen.
These “secret ingredients” may not be on the written recipe, but knowing how they affect flavor will make them a welcome part of your new culinary arsenal. You are sure to find others in different ports as well.