Season to taste: three simple words that can, and often do, mean the difference between a bland and a boisterous dish, but what does it mean exactly? It may seem like a cop-out directive added by lazy recipe writers, but truly, even if a recipe does not explicitly call this step out, it's best practice to include it in your cooking process.
In an ideal world, a recipe would turn out the same regardless of who's at the stove, the ingredients and tools they used, and their interpretation of instructions, but that's simply not the case. While most foods should not taste explicitly salty, tart, hot, or oily, the inclusion of small amounts of ingredients with these qualities can take a dish from bland to exceptional in a flash.
Try this general plan of action the next time a dish falls flat.
- Taste as you're cooking: This may seem obvious, but half the battle to seasoning food properly is understanding what you're starting with. Rather than seasoning blindly, taste the dish before amending with salt, acid, or spice. Chances are it'll need an extra pinch or glug of this and that, but it's much easier to add in flavor than to take excess away.
- Don't oversalt: As a general rule of thumb, start by adding about half of the salt you think a dish will need, or half a teaspoon at a time, whichever will be less. Stop when it tastes almost salty enough, as oftentimes a dish will benefit from the addition of other seasonings, so as to avoid food that simply tastes salty. If you've made your dish too saline, then try adding starch to even things out.
- Assess acidity: A spritz of lemon juice of a splash of vinegar can truly make a dish sing without imparting a tart or acidic taste. Like salt, acid enhances other flavors in a subtle way without necessarily making its presence known. Try adding small amounts at a time, tasting along the way. My go-to acids for seasoning: freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice, vinegars (sherry and red wine in particular), and vinegar-based hot sauce.
- Round out flavors: Does your dish still need a little extra something? Try a pinch of sugar to round out naturally acidic foods like tomato-based sauces and soups, or tart and tangy barbecue. Alternatively, an extra pinch of red pepper flakes, a glug of hot sauce, or a few grinds of freshly cracked black pepper, all of which can add interest. Lastly, think rich: try adding extra oil, butter, or cream, all of which can tone down a heavy hand with other seasonings while creating a velvety texture on the tongue.