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add to taste how to cook by taste
by Yee-Fan Sun |
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continued from page 1

First things first: whenever you encounter a new spice or herb, give it a sniff to give yourself a sense of its aroma (do this carefully with finely powdered ingredients, as a big whiff of powdered mustard or pre-ground pepper is likely to provide an instant sinus clear-out and leave you with an itchy nose for hours afterwards). Don't freak out if your initial impression of the odor is less than positive, as some of the most wonderful ingredients smell horrific in concentrated quantities, but work beautifully once added to a dish. In most cases, however, your nose will provide a helpful clue as to what an ingredient will do to a dish, as smell is a big factor in how our brain processes flavor.

Second, whenever you see the directions "add to taste," don't do a thing until you've made yourself taste the unseasoned dish (assuming that at this point, the dish doesn't contain uncooked or undercooked meats that might potentially make you sick). Actually, even if the recipe is kind enough to provide a suggestion for quantity regarding some herb or spice, it's a good idea to find out what the dish tastes like before dumping in your teaspoon of whatever. It's important to know what that concoction tastes like before you add anything so you can tell whether subsequent additions have changed the flavor at all.

Salt, black pepper and chile peppers (like cayenne and crushed red pepper) are the spices you'll most often be instructed to add to taste. They're all fairly straightforward seasonings whose impact should be pretty discernable to even the most inexperienced of cooks. Salt is a flavor enhancer that essentially makes all the other flavors of a dish stand out more, while the various peppers each add their own brand of spicy heat to dishes. Just about everything you cook will require some amount of salt and black pepper (and after six years spent in Arizona, I'm also now of the opinion that chile pepper makes every dish better too, though many of the folks I know back home in New England would disagree). But how much, you're probably asking, is enough?

Now there's a good reason that recipes generally just tell you to add these particular ingredients to taste: individual salt needs and pepper tolerances vary wildly. What's too salty to me is often just fine to other folks; I'm the sort of person who rubs all the salt off her pretzels before eating them because I can't handle all those big chunks of salt, and I almost always find food too salty when I eat out in restaurants. On the other hand, I've rarely met a dish I found too peppery or too hot, but I know a lot of people for whom even the barest hint of chile sends their mouths a-flamin. That having been said, I recognize that a few guidelines can be helpful when you're first starting off in the kitchen.

A teaspoon of salt is a lot of salt; it's pretty much the maximum recommended amount you're supposed to consume in a whole day. For your average two-person main dish portion of whatever, you're probably talking more in the range of tsp. to a tsp, quite possibly even less if you're using a lot of canned or jarred ingredients (which frequently already have salt added). It's better to go easy on the salt and sprinkle a little more as needed than to add too much straight at the beginning. You can always, always add more salt if you discover the dish just doesn't have enough flavor; it's a whole lot more of a pain to fix an overly salty dish (though not impossible -- liquidy dishes can always be watered down, though with some sacrifice of texture, and a little bit of sugar can often work to balance out saltiness).

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