With so many spice blends, marinades, and precooked meals, many home cooks have lost the ability to season their food properly. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but it does separate the good from the great. Under season, and your food will taste bland. But over season, and your roast chicken will taste more like spice than actual roast chicken. The trick is to add just the right amount of spice to improve the dish without overpowering it.
It might not seem so obvious, but there is a difference between seasoning and flavoring. Seasoning occurs when you use salt. You’re enhancing the natural flavor of the food without changing it. With flavoring, you’re adding to the food’s intrinsic flavor or altering it slightly. Of course, salt can also be used as flavoring. This is seen in the case of snacks like salted pretzels. Likewise, some spices that would usually be used as a flavoring (e.g. cinnamon) can also be used to enhance the natural sweetness of a dish.
The most important rule to remember is that you cannot save poor quality ingredients by adding seasoning. If your main ingredients are high quality, then half of the battle is already won. Remember that seasoning and flavoring are there to enhance a dish, not fix a poorly created one!
When to season
In most recipes, you might have noticed that the last instruction is often ‘season to taste’. In most liquid-based foods, this is the most important step. And there’s a reason why it’s listed last. You first need to evaluate your dish as a whole, before you decide how to improve it.
When cooking larger food items (like a beef roast or whole chicken), salt and other seasonings are added in the first, as well as the last, stages of cooking. If you were to add salt only at the end, your food won’t be seasoned enough.
Remember that as the food cooks, some liquid will be reduced, which concentrates the flavor. Keep this in mind – you don’t want your food to be over seasoned.
When to flavor
Flavorings can be added throughout the process of cooking, at the beginning, middle, or right at the end. It all depends on the cooking time, method of cooking, and the flavoring you’re using. Only a handful of flavorings are suited to be added at the end of cooking. This is usually a dash of Worcestershire sauce, fresh herbs, or a flambé with brandy.
Other ingredients need heat to release their flavor. That’s why we fry whole spices first when using them in a curry. Ground spices are also cooked first, but they release their flavor more quickly.
Remember that the longer you cook food, the more flavor loss would occur. It’s getting the balance right between cooking your food long enough to release the flavor, but short enough to avoid flavor loss. If your dish requires only a short cooking time, it would be perfectly fine to add your herbs and spices at the beginning or halfway through. If you need to cook your meal for a long time, then you’d be better off adding them throughout the whole process – from start to finish.