Avoid scattered seasoning mistakes by sticking with the basics.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
My adult daughter became a vegetarian about a year ago. Cooking for her is fun because I try to make dishes with the same look, appeal, texture and mouthfeel as the ones I make for my wife and myself. The article I wrote, Cook with What You – Actually – Have On-hand, is my mantra. I focus on what I can make her, not what ingredients I can’t use.
She recently visited and I made a tofu “steak” for her. I cut it, marinated it, and seasoned it to look—and I hoped—have the taste and mouthfeel of steak. Generally speaking, I don’t ask people what they think about the food I cook. I can see it in their facial expressions.
By the way, teach that to your students. Almost everyone will say the dish was “good,” but you can tell by their facial gestures and expressions what they really think. Have students practice by watching shows like “Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives.” If you watch Guy Fieri a few times you can tell what he really thinks about a dish—instead of what he is saying for TV.
I watched my daughter take a bite of the tofu and she looked confused. I couldn’t read her expression other than knowing she wasn’t in love with it. I ignored my rule and asked her how her tofu steak tasted? She stopped eating, thought for a few moments, and then said it was “scattered.” I knew exactly what she meant although that is not a word used to critique food.
Scattered meant I had lost focus with my seasonings and spices. I worked hard to create a dish to look like a steak, but lost focus on how the dish should TASTE. I got carried away with seasoning. I acted like a beginner cook using almost everything in my spice cabinet, instead of focusing on using a few select spices to make a great-tasting dish.
This is the point: As teachers, we need to teach our students to focus on the taste of the food, from planning a menu, to deciding on a recipe or technique, to getting the product, to doing their mise en place, to doing their prep, to cooking, to seasoning, and to serving.
(Author’s note: I think students, both home cooks and upcoming professionals, should be taught to cook backward. Before they pick up a carrot or slice an apple, they need to know how the food is going to be served to the guest or their family. See the article, “Don't Cook with Tunnel Vision.”)
In this article and over the next few, I am going to write about teaching students how to use seasonings. One thing you should consider in your virtual teaching is the odds are low your students’ home pantries will have what you normally have in the classroom kitchen. So, it is important to teach them not a specific recipe involving specific seasonings and spices but rather teach them the basic skills and techniques needed to work with what they have on hand. (See the story, “Do You Teach Recipes or Technique?”)
Let’s start with a Baker’s Dozen of the basics:
- Let’s get our phraseology straight between seasoning, spices and herbs. According to the 2013 edition of “The New Food Lover’s Companion”
Seasoning: “Ingredients added to food to intensify or improve its flavor. Some of the most commonly used seasonings include herbs. . .condiments such as Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and mustard, a variety of vinegars … and the most common of all—salt and pepper.” (Author’s note: Until I looked this up, I never guessed condiments were considered seasonings.)
Herbs: “The fragrant leaves of any of various annual or perennial plants that grow in temperate zones and do not have woody stems. . . . Herbs are used to flavor all manner of food and drink."
Spices: “Pungent or aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of various plants and trees (whereas HERBS usually come from the leafy part of the plant.)”
- Have your students check the freshness of their home spices. This is easy to do: open the lid and smell it. If the spice smells like dust or has no smell, then it has no seasoning impact on the food. A problem with people shopping at warehouse stores is the spices tend to grow too old to be used long before the container is empty. I am going to warn you and your students, parents will get upset at the kids and teacher for suggesting throwing out and replacing numerous spices.
- Have students correctly store their spices. Time, heat, light and air cause spices to lose their flavor and potency, and in some cases even turn them rancid. Spices should be in small jars, stored away from the stove, and opened only as necessary. If you buy large quantities, pull out what you will use in the next month or so. Carefully bag the rest, squeeze the air out, and put them in the freezer with a date and label.
- Have your students learn the basics of salt. The easiest way to do this is refer them to my article, “Salt.”
- Explain that when instructions (written or oral) say, “salt and pepper to taste” it means that cooks should not season it the way they like it, but rather the way guests will like it. This is one of the hardest things new cooks learn. Basically, for beginner purposes, when you salt and pepper to taste you want the food to have some interest to it, but you probably shouldn’t taste the salt (see the above referenced article) and the pepper should be just a hint. You don’t want the person to say, “I can really taste the salt and pepper,” unless they are eating something like a pretzel, French Fries, or salt and pepper fish.
- Generally speaking, in preparing a dish, add the seasoning and spices toward the end. This will give them the most impact in cooking.
- Add spices, seasonings and herbs when using low heat. High heat or frying will destroy most of these. One noted exception is always season steak, pork, lamb or chicken with salt and pepper before you cook them.
- The rule of thumb between fresh and dried is one tablespoon of fresh herbs is equivalent to one teaspoon dried.
- If you are reducing a liquid, like making a stock, don’t add the seasonings/herbs/spices until the end. If you add them at the beginning and then reduce, you will in effect be concentrating the seasonings which might end up with an over-seasoned end product.
- Crushed or ground herbs and spices lose their flavor and potency more quickly than whole. Generally speaking, buy whole and grind or crush them as needed.
- When seasoning, start with a little. You can add more, but you cannot take them back. In classic cuisine technique, you would make a small version of the dish and then taste it to adjust seasoning. For example, if you were making sausage patties, you would make one patty, cook it, taste it, and then adjust the seasoning for the batch.
- Not all herbs, spices, and seasonings are created equal. Some like dried dill are very mild, others like fresh rosemary can quickly overpower any dish.
- When an item has several components, season each part of the dish. For example, if you are making fried chicken you will season the chicken AND season the flour for breading. When you do this, you will generally back down a little bit on the seasonings of each component so as not to overpower the final product. In other words, you want the coating on the chicken and the chicken itself to both have a little seasoning to them. You don’t want the two combined to overpower the chicken itself.
Next month: a revisit of my most popular article of all time!
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.