The instruction to “season to taste” can be found at the end of nearly every recipe, but too few of us pause to consider what it really means.
Ask any chef what it means to “season” food, and they’ll tell you it’s just the addition of salt. But go to the “seasonings” section of your supermarket and you’ll find spices, herbs, pastes and sauces. Don’t be fooled. Most of those aren’t seasonings at all, they’re flavourings. It may seem like a minor difference, but for best results in your cooking nothing is more important.
Our sense of taste is a combination of many things – gustation, aroma, texture, temperature – to name just a few. Its complexity is made even more confusing by the lack of consistency in the terms we use to describe it.
Cooks and scientists often refer to the “five basic tastes” of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, but rather than taste, what we are actually talking about is “gustation”, the information we get from our taste buds.
The five basic tastes
The taste buds on our tongues evolved to help us decide what to eat. We like salty and sweet things because salts and sugars are important for our health. Tasting sourness can indicate that food may not be at its best. Bitterness tells us something might be poisonous, and the taste of umami is often triggered by amino acids essential to building proteins.
Completely separate to those tastes, our foods also contain aromas that are sensed by our noses. You can experience the aroma of herbs and spices with your sense of smell without ever having eaten them.
Tastes and aromas work together to give us an overall sense of taste, but when it comes to cooking they are very different.
Seasoning v flavouring
In cooking, the distinction between seasoning and flavouring is very simple: seasonings are tastes experienced by our mouths, and flavourings are aromas we smell with our noses. That distinction has a huge effect on how we cook.
Salt, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and lemon juice are all seasonings. Herbs and spices like coriander, rosemary, cumin and cinnamon are used more for their aromas than their effect on saltiness, sourness, sweetness, bitterness or umami, and are therefore flavourings.
Of course, there are many ingredients that are both seasonings and flavourings. Lemon juice will make a dish lemony, but it will also make it taste sour. A herb like lemongrass, however, will have a similar citrus flavour without any of the sourness. Star anise has a strong liquorice aroma, but it can also increase sweetness and umami. The key is understanding that those ingredients serve two functions.
Why seasoning is important
Seasoning to the five basic tastes explains so much of how we eat, and it has very little to do with flavour. We serve french fries with tomato sauce or mayonnaise not because of a magical flavour pairing of potatoes and tomatoes, or potatoes and eggs, but because the sweet-sour tang of the condiment helps balance the salty, savoury chip.
Understanding seasoning helps us improve our cooking. Sourness from a dash of red wine vinegar just before serving can lift a rich, savoury gravy. A touch of sweet honey to a vinaigrette will bring out its best. As anyone who’s tried salted caramel will know, even a pinch of salt in our cakes and sweets will help bring out their best flavour.
So why salt and pepper?
For many cooks, salt and pepper will be their basic seasonings. Many chefs, however, consider salt the only true seasoning. It’s not a bad definition – and salt is certainly the most important seasoning for our appreciation of food – but our modern, scientific understanding of taste shows it to be incomplete.
The five basic tastes are a good list, but our taste buds can sense quite a few more properties, such as astringent tannins from red wines or fruit skins, pungency from chilli or pepper, and coolness from menthol. Important in their own right, they still aren’t considered part of the modern list of basic tastes for western cooking.
Ayurvedic cooking from India, on the other hand, includes four of our western five, replacing umami with “pungent” and “astringent”. Chinese cooking includes “hot” and “numbing”.
The role of hotness or pungency may not be a basic taste, but it’s still important for cooking. It also helps us understand why we find the “universal spice”, pepper, on dinner tables through Europe, and chilli so commonly scattered on food in Asia.
The piperine in pepper and capsacin in chilli act on our taste buds for pungency, mildly suppressing the five basic tastes. That might seem strange for spices used so often, but some cooks (myself included) believe that the slight suppression of those other tastes actually helps bring them into balance. Adding pepper or chilli may not enhance tastes, but by helping balance them we may appreciate our food more.
So next time you read a recipe that asks you to “season to taste” at the end, know that that doesn’t mean throwing in a bunch of extra spices. Just make sure you season to balance the five basic tastes and you’ll improve every meal.
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