Meticulously, you followed every painstaking step of the recipe. You carefully measured the ingredients. The piece of fish you just paid an outrageous $20 a pound for was cooked exactly as the recipe specified. Yet, it doesn’t taste good – flat, uninteresting, uninspired. What went wrong?
There are always many things that a recipe won’t tell you. You’ll have to rely on your experience and instincts as a cook to make any recipe really taste good. But don’t worry, though developing a highly tuned sense of taste may sound daunting and esoteric, it is achievable. There are many things that can affect the taste of a dish outside of the recipe: texture, doneness, caramelization and quality of ingredients to name a few. But balancing taste through seasoning is perhaps the most important and easy to master.
There are millions of flavors, yet we know that there are only 4 tastes that can be perceived on the tongue: salty, sweet, sour and bitter (umami and heat are subjects for another day). How can that be? It is because flavor results from aromatic elements that are perceived by your nose, not your tongue. If you learn to balance the four tastes, you will allow the true flavors (aromatics) to shine. A good way to learn how to season is by using a salsa recipe. Let’s say we’re making a simple tomato salsa. The ingredients are tomatoes (sweet, sour & aromatic), lime juice (sour & aromatic), onions (bitter & aromatic), olive oil (bitter & aromatic), cilantro (only aromatic), jalapeños (heat, aromatic), salt (salt), pepper (heat, aromatic) and honey (sweet).
Now how could you possibly make a balanced salsa from a recipe using only the quantities specified when all tomatoes are going to have different taste profiles? Some are very sweet and some are sour and not sweet at all. Onions too can be very bitter or slightly sweet and not bitter. The key to seasoning is in these three ingredients that you can count on: lime juice, salt, and honey. If the tomatoes are very sweet, you might not need honey. But if they aren’t, adding sweetness can bring an out-of-balance salsa into condiment nirvana. Many times when it tastes too salty, it doesn’t necessarily have too much salt, but is lacking lime juice or honey. Of course you can add too much of all three and then you need to add more of the other ingredients to balance that out. So go ahead and play with salsa and soon you will find yourself getting more comfortable with seasoning food in general. By making tastier food, you’ll find cooking more rewarding… and more fun!