Sunday, June 18, 2006

Technique of the week: How To Season Food

Why do “gourmet” home cooks crave a Big Mac on occasion? Could it be the texture of the overcooked meat squashed with the spatula until all the juices run out? Or aroma of the processed buns and styrofoam tomatoes? What could be missing from our organic, from-scratch home cooking that is found in the pit of despair known as McDonald’s?

The answer is simple.


“I barely use any salt,” most home cooks proudly tell me as if their food is so good it doesn’t need it. When my students see me grabbing salts by the handfuls (no salt shakers, thank you very much) and generously sprinkle it over fish, roasts, and even salads, their eyes get wide with shock. But the real surprise comes when they taste the food. “Wow, I expected it to be too salty, but it tastes so good.” That’s right. Salt makes food taste good. Without salt, you are eating everything in black and white. With salt you are eating it in color. And even though we don’t like to admit it, a big Mac in color is better than all-natural grass-fed beef burger in black and white.

Being a salt activist is not likely to score me any popularity points. We all know how bad salt is for you. Or is it? Sure, salt might raise your blood pressure, but so does lack of exercise and caffeine. So I suggest, we stop guzzling coke, walk at least 3 miles each day, and stop eating junk food -- there is nothing worse than wasting your salt intake on Doritos. I bet that will help with blood pressure much more than bland food.

The trouble with learning to season properly is that cookbooks, magazines, and food TV programs leave you in the dark about how much salt to use. Since most home cooks started their cooking careers with Campbell’s soup and fajita seasoning mix (this includes me by the way), they never developed intuition for the right amount of salt to use when cooking from scratch. In an effort to help people with the seasoning dilemma, I tried measuring salt when testing my recipes, but 20 million types of salt that hit our market lately sabotaged my efforts. Even saying “1 tsp kosher salt” is not specific enough. Is it Diamond Crystal or Morton’s Kosher salt? Believe it or not, there is a significant difference. And what if someone doesn’t have kosher salt, should I give the conversion to table salt? Eventually I threw in the towel and reverted to using vague, but universal “Salt and pepper to taste.” My conscious always bothered me about quitting like this. How could I sleep at night knowing that all those people might be out there eating less that optimal food even when following my recipes? Since my mission in life is to promote deliciousness, I finally decided to do something about it – I decided to write this post about salt.

Learning to season perfectly (in other words, coaxing the most flavor out of your ingredients without leaving a salty aftertaste) is a sensual process that is akin to learning to have an orgasm. Once you have one, you’ll know what it feels like and will be able to do it again. Until then, it all seems like smoke and mirrors. The porn (sex and food kind), and voluptuous prose of romance novels and food literature are great at turning you on or making your mouth water. But descriptions of how he unbuttoned her dress and how the first bite of shrimp exploded like fireworks in her mouth will not make you a better lover or cook. What will make you better is experimentation.

I wish I could take credit for this brilliant exercise, but I didn’t come up with it. It’s something I found on The Experimental Kitchen by Rebecca Faill, who teaches baking at King Arthur's education center in Vermont.

Here is what you’ll need:

1 cup UNSALTED home-made chicken stock – the reason you can’t use store bough stock is that it already has salt, and even the low-salt varieties have additives that can complicate matters. If you don’t have home-made chicken stock on hand, combine 4 cups cold water, 1 skinless chicken breast, 1 carrot, 1 celery stick, and 1 onion in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil on the stove top, then immediately reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, occasionally removing impurities that rise to the top. It’s not really a chicken stock, but it will do just fine for this exercise.

Diamond Crystal Kosher salt – Diamond Crystal is cheap, available in any supermarket, dissolves quickly, and doesn’t have additives. That’s the salt used in the restaurant industry and cooking schools. If you can’t find it, you can use Morton’s kosher salt, though it is coarser and doesn’t dissolve as quickly. What’s wrong with regular table salt? Even though it looks very fine, it doesn’t dissolve as quickly as kosher salt and has additives that give it a metallic aftertaste. What about sea salt? Pink salt? Black salt? Polka dot salt? Just kidding, there is no polka dot salt, but the gourmet world has been going a little crazy with salt lately (I didn’t make up the thing about pink and black salts). Sure, if you want to spend big bucks on salt and buy a salt grinder, be my guest. But for most uses, it’s a waste of money and effort.

Here is how you can practice seasoning:

1) Warm up your stock to the temperature at which you like to eat soups. When seasoning foods to taste, make sure they are at the temperature you will be serving them. As a general rule of thumb, hot foods will need slightly less seasoning than cold foods since we perceive flavors more intensely at higher temperatures.

2) Pour 1/2 cup of the stock into a bowl and taste it. It should taste kind of “blah” – flat and uninteresting.

3) Now try adding salt a tiny pinch at a time, stirring well to dissolve it, and tasting the stock after each addition. The flavors should start to come into focus with each addition of salt. Concentrate and try to remember what the stock tasted like after each addition.

4) Keep adding salt a little at a time until the stock tastes “salty” – the taste of salt overshadows other flavors.

5) Remember what the stock tasted like right before you added that last pinch of salt and made it too salty? That was the perfect seasoning stage. Try to use your memory to recreate that taste using the second 1/2 cup of stock. Pour it into a clean bowl, and start adding salt a little at a time, constantly tasting. But this time, stop adding salt when the stock tastes just right, before it gets too salty.

Perfectly seasoned food should be vivid and intense, like the last few moments before an orgasm. It should fill your whole being with pleasure and leave you wanting more.

Other tips on seasoning:

Throw away your salt shaker – salt shakers don’t work for kosher salt and don’t give you the fine control you can get with your hands. Keep a small bowl of salt on the counter and use your hands to pinch salt and sprinkle it on your food when cooking. Large pots of soup or water for pasta will take way too many pinches, so use a spoon.

Be generous when seasoning thick cuts of meat, like 1-2 inch steaks. Remember that the seasoning is only on the outside and it has to be intense enough to compensate for unseasoned inside. Be even more generous when seasoning large roasts like a prime rib or a whole chicken.

Solid foods (fish, chicken, meats) are generally seasoned before cooking to intensify the flavor.

Liquid foods, like soups, sauces, and even risotto, are generally seasoned after cooking because the evaporation of water can make them more salty than you intended, particularly if you are reducing a sauce.

Since you can’t taste meats and fish in their raw state, seasoning them is a bit tricky. Try 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher (DCK) salt per pound of seafood, and 1 tsp DCK salt per pound of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. This will give you a starting point, and next time you’ll be able to fine tune your seasoning. Use the measuring spoons to measure out the salt, but use your hands to sprinkle it on food. This will help you develop an intuition for how much salt to sprinkle on raw foods when you can’t taste them.
May 20, 2008 correction:
I think my original estimate was a tad low. After using measuring spoons to test the above suggestion, I found that it's not seasoned enough to my taste. What I actually use seems to be closer to 1+1/4 tsp DCK salt per pound of seafood and 1+1/2 tsp DCK salt per pound of chicken, beef, pork, and lamb. I use a little less if there is a sauce that goes along with the protein since the sauce is usually seasoned with salt too. If the sauce contains soy sauce, fish sauce, or some other very salty ingredient, I drop the amount of salt that I sprinkle on the protein appropriately.

Keep in mind that all salts are different! 2 tsp DCK = 1 tsp table salt = 1.5 tsp Morton's Kosher (roughly). For all other salt, you have to experiment to find the right amount.

Leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard are seasoned after cooking since they are mostly made of water that evaporates during cooking leaving the dish more salty than you intended if you seasoned it up front.

Don’t forget to season your salads. Since many home cooks are used to salty store-bought dressings they don’t realize that they need to add salt to their salads if using a home made dressing. You’ll have much finer control if you salt your greens, than if you salt your dressing. Even with store-bought dressings, you might have to add salt if you like your salads lightly dressed.

And most importantly -- Taste, Taste, Taste!


Anonymous said...

Helen, maybe you didn't think it up but I am delighted that you brought it to my attention. As soon as I am home, I'll be trying this taste test. Thank you so much.

Helen said...

Hi Tanna,

Do let me know how the taste test turns out. I can't wait to find out.


Dianka said...

What a great post, very interesting! I just love salt myself and cannot imagine cooking without it!

Anonymous said...

Very helpful tips. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

Woo Hoo! another pro-salt activist! seriously, i've thought about tackling this topic in a post, but then i get lazy and start to think about how in-depth i would need to go to really get the point across. I will for sure be linking to this post next time i blog. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen!

Thank you for keeping up this excellent blog.
I have to disagree on the salt topic. Salt is definitely not good for you for many reasons + 10g. of salt keep an extra 1l. of water in your body. The more you use it, more generous in seasoning you become. It's much better to undersalt everything and use a sea salt, which is pretty mild for a taste. As far as salads go, I use black Kalamata olives to substitute salt, and it works fine.



Anonymous said...

Um, Alex,

Have you considered why the Kalamatas are a good substitute for salt? Because they're salty?

Just as you point out that salt CAN be detrimental to health, a diet with not enough is equally problematic. Assuming one is eating whole, natural, non-processed foods, seasoning daily meals with salt is simply not going to adversly affect your health.

Helen, your knowledge and dedication are amazing and inspiring. Keep up the great blog. ......see how a little orgasm talk inspires participation and commentary?!

Helen said...

Hi Alex,

I really appreciate your comment. It's not fun when everyone agrees with me :) And I was hoping to stir a little controversy with this post.

Salt is, of course, a matter of personal taste. Since I gravitate towards French and Italian food, I like it well salted. There are much milder cuisines and some of the African cuisines don't use salt at all. It's not right or wrong, it's just what you enjoy. But when it comes to French and Italian cooking, salt is essential. I remember when we were in Italy, many Americans that we met complained that everything was too salty. That's just how Italian food is. There is no mildly seasoned food in Italy. Is eating this much salt a risk to your health? Yes, it's a small risk. But we take all kinds of risks in life. Some people downhill ski, some ride motocycles, I eat salt, raw fish, and other potentially dangerous foods :)


Pyewacket said...

Personally, I tend to undersalt, but that's just because I'm fairly salt-sensitive. I find most restaurant food, particularly cheap restaurant food, terribly salty. But I warn people who eat at my house that they will probably need to add salt, as I undersalt for most people's tastes.

This is entirely a taste issue and not at all a health consideration. Our bodies are more different than people believe. Lots of people can eat tons of salt without the slightest problem, while other have to be very careful about salt intake. My blood pressure is low; I'm not concerned. This is a genetic issue. If you don't have an physical reason for avoiding salt (and most people don't), then don't worry about it. Pour it on (although if I'm coming to dinner, do me a favor and undersalt slightly - you can make up the difference at the table, and I can not.)

Helen said...

Hi Pyewacket,

Does this mean you'd like to come over for dinner? I promise to go easy on the salt :)


Anonymous said...


Discovered your blog just few days ago, an love it.

As a kid (long time ago) I used dip my finger in the salt cellar and lick it. It was pure, mined salt,and the flavour was amazing. Just recently had opportunity to buy same (similar) salt. Food tasted fantastic, full spectrum of colours. Using several different types of salt on daily basis.

Did I say I loved your blog?

Anonymous said...

AMEN! I preach this at every class I teach. I see people's eyeballs light up when I grab the salt. Then I quote the nutritionists I've met who say unless hypertension is an issue for you and if you don't eat boxed or frozen pre-prepared foods you can salt as you wish when cooking from scratch.
I never use any salt when I cook is a personal pet peeve of mine and I hear it...a lot.

Anonymous said...

My German grandmother salted liberally but my mother did not, us kids always liked Grandma's cooking better she claims. Now I enjoy cooking and do salt liberally.

Anonymous said...

At last!!! Someone standing up for salt! I was so delighted to read this entry; I can't stand when people refrain from using salt. Salt-free cooking is bland and unenjoyable. Thanks Helen!

GS said...

There is a moment in the seasoning when food comes alive. It is alchemy in the kitchen. Tamari, fish sauce and sea salt are my favourite additives - but not all in the same meal :)

GS said...

ps: I thought this was such a great piece that I've linked this post to my blog.

MEM said...

Sorry to disappoint, but I have to add my voice to the chorus of supporters: superb post and 100% true. I've made huge strides in my home cooking over the last few years, and I'd say at least half of it is attributed to appreciating how salt changes food.

And, I think I probably learned it from several months in Siena, where the salt level frequently dips below most other regional Italian cuisines. Traveling back and forth between unsalted Siena and salt-crazy Roma really opened my beady little eyes.

Now, next how about a post about the other evil:, cooking temperature, balancing with acidic elements....

Jeanne said...

Hi Helen

What great post and yes, hurrah for salt supporters! Salt has been so demonised over the years but the truth is that for people with normal kidney function and blood pressure, salt is not a killer and is needed in every diet. But of course, as you say, don't waste your daily salt requirements on Doritos!!

If you don't mind I am going to link to you in my post on salt - we did a tasting of 9 or so different salts which was really interesting:

Anonymous said...

oddly enough, most people i know who will not tolerate salt are the ones who eat 2 pounds of meat in one course, barely mix with vegetables(or vice versa), and have no clue how to make soup, and probably doesnt focus on a specific cuisine (jap-style one day, pasta the next) *shudders*.. wait... these are just people who dont know how to cook!

Chef Andy said...

If you want to *really* take it to the next level, take that same stock that you've perfectly seasoned, and put 1/8th tsp of vinegar in it until it tastes downright delicious. You won't taste the vinegar, but as with the salt the stock/broth will activate a whole bunch more taste buds. The difference is *profound*.

Helen said...

Hi Chef Andy,

Great idea on the vinegar! When I do this exercise with my classes, I use lemon juice for acidity. Do you think vinegar is better or is it a similar effect?

Thanks :)

Erin Brown, RDN, CD, M.S., M.Ed. said...

I also want to a tasting class at the local market and deli. The chef also mentioned the most important ingredient when cooking is salt!

Anonymous said...

How much salt should I use to season a 4-lb chicken? and a 3-lb whole pork loin? and 1 lb of meat/chicken with bones? should I use the same amount of salt for meat with bones and without bones if they are the same weight?
Everywhere I look says to season with salt and pepper, but I still have no idea how much....and whoever I ask just tell me to add as much as I like... well, I don't know how much to add so that it will be to my liking. I NEED A GENERAL GUIDELINE!!!
thank you so much if you can help me. ( I am a beginner cook that does not know how to season food)

Helen said...

Hi there,

To give you any guidelines, we have to first agree on specific salt. Let's assume you are using Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (the best affordable and easily available salt I ever found). A general guidelines is 1 tsp per pound of protein. If the protein has bones inside it (like chicken), I still use this guideline. If the protein has bones sticking out and not at all covered by meat (like a frenched rack of lamb), I use less since I don't salt completely exposed bones.

Keep in mind that this is a general guideline. You might want to use more or less salt depending on your cooking method, condiments, etc. For example, when I make salmon teriyaki (it's glazed in a skillet with soy sauce), I barely season it with salt because soy sauce has all the salt I need (particularly after it reduces to a glaze).


Unknown said...

Thank you SOO much Helen. You are the only person in this world that is willing to give me a number -for how much salt to add ( I know this is a general guide)

I appreciate your help very much!

Evelyn (the beginner cook)

Helen said...

Hi Momo,

I was just cutting up a chicken and decided to measure exactly how much salt I used. Here is what I ended up with. It was a 5 Lb chicken and yielded 1.25Lb of legs and 1.5 Lb of breasts with the wings attached, but trimmed to the first joint. I used just under 1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt for both legs (seasoning on both sides) and 1.5 tsp for breasts. As you can see, it was more salt for breasts than legs per pound. I guess there is a lot of intuition that goes into it and although I thought my amount was roughly the same for bone-in and bone-less proteins, subconsciously, I was using less when the protein has bones inside. If I was seasoning a whole chicken, I wouldn't have the inside of breasts and legs exposed to seasoning, but would probably put a bit more salt on the outside to compensate. I would also season the wing tips and backbone that I ended up removing here. All in all, my guess is it would add up to about 1 Tbsp for a 5 Lb chicken. That's lower than using my boneless protein to salt ratio of 1 tsp per pound.

I know, I know -- it's all very confusing, but since I had a bit more information, I thought I'll pass it along.


Unknown said...

Thanks so much again for the info :) I didn't see this until just now.
Now that I have this extra info, I have even more courage to sprinkle those salt onto my meat (with or without bones)!!

the Lady Gooner said...

I saw this link on a friend's blog, and I loved the article, thanks for the tips! I personally love salt, and have found a quick solution to a fast food craving is a small piece of cheese lightly salted. The fat, protein and salt mix is enough to stave off my want for a Big Mac.

Do you have any idea where I might find DCK salt in a more rural area? I have looked so far at Wegman's and Wal-Mart but can't seem to find it. I'm too impatient for Morton's!

Helen said...

Try any regular supermarket. Fancy ones like Wagman's and Whole Foods don't carry Diamond Crystal.


Daniel said...

This is a great post for someone like me trying to learn about adding salt to food. I've done a phenomenal job eliminating virtually all processed foods from my diet (I'm not trying to brag, just trying to help my point) and it's hard to "season to taste" when the health advocates out there have everyone fearing salt because of the overconsumption. I understand that adding a pinch to my food isn't nearly as much as what's put into a box of cereal or something similar, but is there a way to be conservative while still adding a lot of flavor?

Helen said...

"...but is there a way to be conservative while still adding a lot of flavor?"

Use direct dry cooking methods, like pan searing (grilling and broiling are also good, but pan searing is the best). The more browning you create on your food, the more complex the flavor, so you usually need less salt.