I arrived home the other day and walked into the kitchen only to have the wonderful aroma of something delightful cooking on the stove. After greeting my wife and kids, my nose led me to the stove to see what was cooking. It was a Potato and Leek Soup that was still simmering in order to bring the flavors together and slightly thicken the soup too. My wife was excited for me to try it. She is always eager and asking my opinion of how she can improve her cooking skills. After tasting the delightful soup, I realized she had great flavor, but it could be even better. She cooked everything perfectly and in the right order to maximize the flavors she is working with. The question was “when” she added salt to the recipe. It seems as though a small detail, but it can be the difference between a “great” soup and a “okay” soup. It was discovered that she added all the salt add the end while making the soup, as I’m sure many of you might do the same. By doing so, she loses an opportunity to develop layers of depth in flavor within that soup. It almost tastes shallow. If you add small amounts of salt as you are adding each wave of ingredients, you are able to pull the flavor out of those ingredients, ultimately developing depth in flavor for the final product. While completing that soup/dish, you should be just tweaking the seasoning and adding very little versus adding all your seasoning at once at the end. When you do this, you will taste and enjoy the depth at the table.
One of the differences between a home cook and a professional chef is the chef has worked hard to learn how to season (adding salt and pepper) to their cooking properly. In order to do that, you need to learn and develop your palate/taste buds. I’ll point you in the right direction to do so.
Once you are confident in your seasoning ability, you will be able to prepare delightful creations and have a skill that a lot of the restaurant chefs out there don’t. Yes…you heard me right. I believe there are a lot of “trained” chefs out there that have never focused on the most basic skill of seasoning their cooking, unfortunately. When eating out I’m always surprised how this most basic skill is overlooked within the profession. The difference between an “okay” dish and an “incredible” dish can come down to proper seasoning.
It really just takes practice and working with another cook/chef who has that experience. You should practice in a setting where you can ask a lot of questions and taste the same sauce, for example, over and over as you slowly add seasoning with a purpose. In doing so, you can learn what you are tasting and how the sauce changes in flavor as you add different amounts of seasoning with the ultimate goal of making that sauce or dish perform at its peak in flavor. When working with someone who does know how to season, they can verbalize what you are thinking. It’s similar to tasting wine. If you drink a glass of wine with a sommelier (expert wine director) and you focus on small sips of that wine, you are not able to verbalize exactly what you tasted. But if the sommelier points out different tasting notes, it seems as if the verbalization is on the tip of your tongue, even though you can’t quite put it in words. “Yes, that is exactly what I was tasting!” It’s the same with learning how to season and learning when to add to reach that full potential of flavor. Through the process, you need to trust your palate.
Once you get the basic understanding and what your taste buds are telling you, you can practice at home. Don’t get frustrated when there are failed attempts with overly seasoned food that becomes too salty. It’s difficult to fix “too salty,” but that’s okay, it will happen. There isn’t a chef who doesn’t make mistakes every single day. Stick with it.
Let’s talk about the differences between the salts that are sold at our grocery stores to decide which is best for you:
Idolized Salt- this is a salt that is processed and doesn’t have much value except that it will fit through the small holes of that formal saltshaker. It actually has an unappetizing chemical taste.
Kosher Salt- this is a salt that I used to use a lot until I learned more about it. Again, it’s a processed salt, but in a very light flake. That creates a lot of surface area where it will both dissolve quickly in your food and your tongue. However, it’s disturbing to know that it has twice (50%) as much sodium than sea salt.
Crystalline Sea Salt- this salt is a natural salt that is ground down, yet very clean tasting. I like the taste, but I find it difficult to control and use as I cook. It is just too fine. It’s great to fit in those table salt shakers, though.
Flaked Sea Salt- this is the salt I use and prefer. It’s a completely natural salt, which translates into a healthier salt. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s one of our most used ingredients – and it’s worth it. It has that light flake-like structure that will dissolve quickly to enhance your food.
Fleur de Sel- this is a more fancy salt that comes from France. Sometimes, this salt is even moist, which shows how natural it is. However, it is very expensive and more of a finishing salt. This means that, you wouldn’t want to cook with it, but rather use it to finish those August sliced tomatoes. I would leave this salt to the fancy restaurants.
Rock Salt- this is a very coarse raw salt that you would use to make ice cream.
Pickling Salt- this is mainly used for making pickles and canning.
Being able to achieve this basic but essential cooking skill of seasoning food properly is the difference between a good cook and a great cook. We spend money with quality ingredients; we should do the same with our salt we use.
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