Seasoning Basics and the Flavor Spectrum
I wrote about this a number of years ago and it seemed time to bring it ’round again. It’s a good exercise to review and revamp past writings, like a second chance at getting it right. This topic is way more enormous than can fit into a little post but it’s an introduction and gives some food for thought.
My little mantra when I cook and in recipes is “Taste and Adjust”. People often ask me “But how do you know what to add? How can I ‘Taste and Adjust’ if I don’t know what will help?”. All good questions, and below is an attempt to describe the Basics of Seasoning to give some guidance on how to ‘Adjust’.
Take a moment
Think of a dish as a painting or a picture: the palette of colors are your seasonings, the medium is food. When you approach cooking, especially without a recipe, it helps to ask questions that help you figure out the direction you are headed.
What is the story?
What are the main colors? What are secondary colors?
Do you want balance? Or asymmetry so something stands out?
What is the feeling for which you are aiming? Do you want bold? Complex? Simple? Delicate?
What will this accompany?
We use our senses when we eat so the many layers must be considered. The tongue experiences both the texture of the “mouthfeel” and also tastes the five flavors (Salty, Sweet, Bitter, Sour and Pungent); the eyes see the color, shape, arrangement; the nose smells the aromas; the ears hear the sizzle or pop.
Observe your dish with all of these senses.
How to begin?
Generally, simple is better. Start with a main ingredient and build from there. The more flavors you use, the more difficult it is to balance and it can become muddled.
Primary flavors are the main ingredient. Secondary flavors should enhance and support by either “harmonizing or contrasting”. For example: heat cream (primary) then whisk in egg yolks and salt (secondary) to harmonize, then add a little lemon to contrast. The contrast is just enough to add balance and enliven, but not overpower. A dash of nutmeg would support, and the result is a tasty little sauce.
Simple is elegant, but sometimes complex is also beautiful! Indian curries and Mexican molés, for example, are extremely complicated but their flavors meld well. I would advise following recipes if you are beginning into the realm of complex flavors—at least until you begin to feel comfortable understanding what the ingredients do.
Envision what you want for the dish: if the main ingredient has strong flavor, like lamb, you will probably be fine adding potent seasoning like cumin, cinnamon, saffron, or rosemary. If you are going for a delicate taste avoid bold flavors that will mask it or take over the party.
How do you know if flavors work together?
It comes with experience, perusing recipes, and some experimentation!
Some foods enhance flavors and go well with nearly everything (parsley, nutmeg, salt, paprika, leeks, cinnamon) and others are ‘loud’, they are very distinct and additions of these should be intentional (dill, saffron, caraway).
A good place to start is to investigate the origins of seasonings, or at least where they have grown for a long time—ingredients that are from the same regions will tend to be a safe combination.
Here are a few examples:
- Lime, Cilantro, Chiles—Mexico and Southeast Asia
- Caraway, Paprika and Sour Cream—Eastern Europe
- Ginger and Soy Sauce—Japan
- Dill, Mustard, Salmon—Scandinavia
- Cinnamon, Cumin, Coriander—-Northern Africa
Great seasoning guides:
- The 1997 Joy of Cooking has a helpful chart in the back
- Professional Cooking by Wayne Gisslen has a chapter on building flavors
- The Flavor Bible fills an entire book with suggestions of what ingredients go well together and describes the tone and volume of each food or seasoning
Look at some classic recipes to see what seasoning mixtures they use then go from there. You will start to see patterns and flavors that commonly go together.
The world of Fusion Cooking has completely blown open the classic combinations, mixing flavors and foods from different regions in new and amazing ways. When it works it can be incredible—but I’m sure there were failed experiments along the way.
Start with the basics, but don’t be afraid to experiment.
When to add?
The longer an herb or seasoning cooks the more subtle the flavor becomes, and it can even become lost if it cooks too long. Whole spices take longer to release their volatile oils than spices that have been ground.
Example— in a soup you would add ground spices, herbs and salt in the beginning to create a base flavor as it cooks, but you might also add fresh parsley and lemon at the end to give it a brightness. The original flavors may not be able to be distinguished anymore but they have helped form an underlying support.
If cooking meats or dense vegetables like potatoes, salt should be added at the beginning so it is absorbed.
Reducing liquids will cause the flavors to become more concentrated and potent—be careful not to overseason if you are making a reduction.
Taste as you go.
This is probably the most important practice! See how the flavor changes as something cooks or is stirred in.
Some dishes like sauces, marinades, and grain salads need to sit for 15-30 minutes for the flavors to ‘meld so it’s good to wait a bit before deciding the final touches.
It needs more of something….how do you know what to add?
Taste it. Does it need a punch or a bright zing, like mustard or lemon? Or does it have no base or backbone and needs some onion, garlic, nutritional yeast, salt, or tamari?
Each ingredient has a purpose and it helps to understand what they do. This is a list of some of my often used ingredients that are in order of what I consider base to bright. It’s been a handy tool I’ve used when teaching.
The Flavor Spectrum—from Base to Bright
1) Bones and Meat
- Bones, marrow and meat are the ultimate in creating a stock with a good umami protein base.
- Bones need to be simmered at a low heat for a long time to fully extract the flavors.
2a) Onions, Carrots and Celery
- These three are the Holy Trinity of base flavor in the French influenced world, used in many stocks and soups.
- They are referred to as the ‘aromatic vegetables’ and ‘mirepoix’.
- Carrots and Celery are part of the same family.
- Even if you don’t like celery, you should still cook with it!! The ‘bitter’ is part of the flavor-magic.
2b) Garlic and Shallots
- Also important in creating base flavor.
- Both are part of the onion family.
- Add early in the cooking for depth, add at the end for more prominent flavor.
- Even granulated garlic can help, the flavor holds up well.
- Roasting makes them sweet and adds another dimension to a dish.
3) Black and White Pepper
- Black Pepper is picked unripe and is a common seasoning used especially with meats and stocks.
- White pepper is picked ripened but the hull removed. Also used in many foods especially in light colored dishes as it won’t be seen. Some say it has a milder flavor due to the absence of the outer layer of skin that is on black pepper.
- Numerous kinds of peppercorns are available, the fresher the ‘corn’ the more pungent and fruity the flavors.
4) Red Pepper, Cayenne and Paprika
- Cayenne in tiny amounts adds depth and a little warmth, and a flavor that blends well without changing anything.
- Paprika adds a distinct flavor but in strong flavored dishes can add great depth.
- It enhances all flavors, and is extremely versatile in both sweet and savory dishes.
- Used in a wide range of dishes: Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian, Caribbean.
- It’s slangily referred to as the “Italian MSG”.
- Parsley, Nutmeg and Garlic are three of my most-often used seasonings.
6) Tamari and Miso
- Tamari and miso add salt and also a depth of the fermented soy or whatever is the base of the miso.
- In delicate flavored dishes use sparingly.
- Salt is extremely important for flavor enhancement, also necessary to live.
- Real Salt and sea salt have more minerals and flavor.
- Kosher Salt is lower in sodium per teaspoon because of the large flakes, which is also easy to handle with fingers.
- Many other kinds of salts are available, including smoked salt and hand harvested salt.
- Parsley wins ‘The Most Versatile Herb’ award in my world.
- It adds depth to anything without changing its direction or its color.
- Parsley and Celery are considered “bitters”, both are very handy in adding depth.
- Add early in a dish for more subtle base flavor, later for a more uplifting punch. Use it fresh.
9) Other Green Herbs
- Green leaf herbs can help add depth when added early.
- They add a lively flavor when added at the end of a dish.
- Dried herbs are more concentrated and are probably better used for base flavors, fresh herbs still have their volatile oils which give them their punch.
- A rhizome used in Asian and Indian dishes, it can help add warmth, depth and brightness.
- Ginger can be used in both savory and sweet dishes.
- Dried or prepared, it adds brightness.
- There is a distinct flavor so be careful of its use.
12) Lemon, Lime or Orange Zest
- Citrus zest adds the volatile oil, giving additional brightness and a tiny bit of bitter.
- Zest can work to liven pilafs, baked goods, meat and poultry.
- Use only the colored parts, not the white.
13) Lemon/Lime Juice
- The flavor and the aroma brighten and liven everything.
- The acids help break down tissue, beginning the cooking process.
- Add to a pot roast at the beginning to help with tenderness and flavor.
- Add at the end of any dish for an uplifting effect.
- They have similar uses to citrus.
- They’re great flavoring for soups, sauces, desserts, entrees.
- They should be cooked or simmered to eliminate most alcohol in cooking process.
- If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. Use a decent quality beverage.
- Deglaze with them.
- Deglaze means to douse a saute pan with wine after you have removed the meat, but with the heat still on. This will loosen the tasty meat residuals. The alcohol will mostly evaporate, leaving a lovely sludge packed with flavor.
- Vinegars are used like citrus and wine, to brighten and liven.
- Their flavors can be powerful, so add vinegar in small amounts, and always taste!
- They are great in beans, stews (red wine or cider), potato salad (cider), blanched vegetable salads (wine, cider or balsamic), pot roast, tomato sauce (red wine or balsamic).
- Balsamic vinegar can be reduced to a syrup—a great addition to salads or vegetables.
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.