February 7, 2011

Keys To Seasoning Foods

Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking (2010 Doubleday) provides simple statements of fact and advice, along with brief explanations that help cooks understand why, and apply that understanding to other situations. Not a cookbook, Keys to Good Cooking is, simply put, a book about how to cook well.

1. To season a food is to balance and adjust its flavours to give the greatest possible pleasure to the people who will eat it.

2. Good seasoning is the cook’s responsibility. It can’t be specified in a recipe, because ingredients and cooking procedures are too variable.

3. People perceive flavours differently. This is a matter of inescapable biology, not arbitrary preference. People inherit different sets of chemical receptors, and may be hypersensitive to some tastes or smells, completely blind to others. Some people are born with more taste buds than others. And everyone’s overall sensitivity to taste and smell declines in later life.

4. A good cook allows for differences in flavour perception. Discuss them openly to learn whether you’re especially sensitive or insensitive to particular flavours, and then take that self-knowledge into account when you season foods. Don’t be offended when people ask to season your food for themselves.

5. Tastes provide the foundation of flavour, and aromas are its free-form super-structure. To season a food is to balance its basic tastes and fill out its aromatic possibilities.

6. Always check the seasoning toward the end of cooking. Food flavours evolve during the cooking process. Flavour integration or “melding” is desirable, but often involves the loss of appealing flavour notes.

7. Season foods while they’re at serving temperature. Flavour perception is strongly affected by temperature. Saltiness, bitterness, and most aromas are accentuated in hot food.

8. To season a food, taste it actively. Ask yourself questions such as these:

  • Is there enough salt to avoid blandness?
  • Would the acid of some lemon juice or vinegar make the flavour brighter and more mouthwatering? Acidity is especially undervalued as a general flavour booster and balancer.
  • Is there enough savoriness or sweetness to carry the aroma?
  • Would some pungency from pepper add a desirable edge?
  • Have desirable aromas faded away or become masked? Should they be revived by adding a fresh round of those aromatics? Should the aroma be filled out with a complementary herb or spice, or butter, or grassy olive oil?

Reprinted with permission from Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking (2010 Doubleday).


©istockphoto.com/Liv Friis-Larsen