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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

What Pro Cooks Know About Salt and Flavor

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Have you ever looked at a recipe and wondered just how much “salt to taste” really meant? Have you watched TV chefs toss handfuls of salt into a pot with fascination? Or sat in front of a bland pile of food — or worse, an inedibly over-salted mess — and wondered whether it was you who got things wrong or the recipe? Well, that’s in the past! We’re going to help you learn exactly when and how to season food, and to understand what the seasoning is doing at different parts of the cooking process — so you can season your dishes just like the pros.

Proper Seasoning Makes Food Taste Right

The difference between a delicious meal and a pile of hot ingredients often comes down to how well (or poorly) food is seasoned. And it’s not just a matter of adding the right spices in the right amounts — anyone who has accidentally forgotten, say, to put salt in the water when cooking pasta or grains and then tried to fix it by adding some in after will understand that timing plays a big role as well. But while seasoning is important, it’s not necessarily complicated to do. So let’s walk through the basic principles, and then try some things out!

Salt Does So Much More than Make Food Salty

The purpose of adding salt isn’t to make food taste salty — it’s to enhance the flavors of the ingredients. As has been noted by a number of famous cooks, salt makes food taste more like itself. Salt is one of the basic building blocks of life — we need it like we need water, to live. And it is present, to some degree, in everything we eat. Getting the right balance of salt into cooked food is what makes the food yummy, which is what seasoning is all about.

The Difference Between Seasoning and Spice

There’s an important distinction to be made, right off the bat, between spices and seasonings. Spices add their own flavor to food (cinnamon will make a dish taste like cinnamon; pepper will make it taste peppery). But seasonings bring out different flavors in an ingredient. Completely unseasoned steamed broccoli, for instance, will taste flat, or bitter. But if the right amount of salt and a touch of acid are added, the broccoli doesn’t necessarily taste salty, or sour — it just tastes better.

There are several basic ways to season food (most famously enumerated in Samin Nostrat’s seminal book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat), but the most fundamental is salt, which will be our primary focus.

A note, in particular, on pepper. Salt and pepper just seem to go together, right? Not when you’re cooking. Pepper isn’t a seasoning, it’s a spice — something that can even confuse cooking school students. While we encourage you to season most dishes regularly with salt, you don’t need to add pepper nearly as often, unless you want a dish that is specifically supposed to taste peppery. When you do use pepper, however, we highly encourage you to get a pepper grinder and freshly grind it. It will be much more flavorful, and a good grinder also lets you adjust the coarseness of the grind, depending on your needs.

Kinds of Salt

If you’re the kind of person who longs for the days when salt was simple, and there was only one kind out there, we can sympathize. The number of salts available — sea salt, iodized, kosher, flaky, Himalayan pink — can seem both overwhelming and unhelpful. But there’s good news: Salt doesn’t have to be complicated.

These days your main kinds of salt are kosher salt, table salt (the fine-grained stuff you find most often in salt shakers), and flaky (or finishing) salt (such as Maldon). We recommend keeping all three on hand. Fine salt is good for baking, and finishing salt is perfect for garnishing a dish, but primarily you should cook with kosher salt.

And we recommend not just any kosher salt, but Diamond Crystal in particular. Diamond Crystal is recommended by a lot of chefs and well-known cooks, including Alton Brown and Samin Nosrat. This is due to its light, flaky structure, which makes it less salty by volume, and helps it to dissolve quickly in water and stick well to food. Other companies besides Diamond Crystal make kosher salts, but they tend not to be as airy or light. Finishing salt is too expensive to use regularly, and table salt, by contrast, is very dense. It’s much easier to over-salt food with it, and the iodized versions tend to impart an unwanted bitterness.

How to Salt Food

A dish that is under-salted might taste flat or overly bitter. And if your food tastes salty, then it’s probably over-salted. When salting, you’re looking for the sweet middle ground. So you want to salt your dish at every step, and taste as you go. If your recipe starts by instructing you to cook onions, add a pinch of salt to help the onions actually taste like onions, so they will build a stronger foundation for the dish. Chefs describe this as building layers of flavor in a dish: Just like Shrek and onions, dishes have layers.

When tasting a dish, try to ignore your instinct to taste for saltiness and instead ask yourself if the flavors are flat or bright, or if the food is a touch bitter. This will help you decide if it’s properly seasoned.

Let’s try an experiment. Go to the fridge and grab a vegetable — a carrot, say, or pepper, or piece of broccoli, something you can eat raw. Cut it into a few bite-sized pieces. Now sprinkle the smallest bit of salt — just a touch — on half of them. Wait a couple of minutes for the salt to absorb, then take a bite of the unsalted vegetable. As you chew, taste it. What do you taste? If it’s a carrot, it’ll probably be sweet at first. Eventually, as you chew, other flavors will come in, some bitter, some earthy. Now do the same with the salted one. What do you notice? It might taste brighter, more carrot-y. Some flavors should have faded a little into the background, but others will have come forward, be more present.

When cooking, as long as it’s safe, it’s helpful to taste your ingredients, and season as you go. And this is something you can do throughout the process of cooking, not just at the beginning or end. In fact, when a recipe step says “salt to taste,” this is the process you’re expected to do: Taste the dish. Add a little salt. Taste again. Repeat if necessary until the dish tastes bright and yummy (not salty).

Other Flavors: Spices and Herbs

Salt is, of course, not the only way to make something more flavorful, and there is a world of spices worth knowing about. Here are a few basic things to know about herbs and spices.

Herbs (the leaves and tender stems from a plant) are best when they are fresh, although dried herbs are great when you want to infuse a dish with flavor from the beginning, like in a soup or braise. Spices (the dried seeds, roots, or bark) can be bought whole or ground. Whole spices stay fresher for longer, but ground spices are often more handy for everyday cooking.

You don’t need an enormous spice collection in order to be an awesome cook. Even dried herbs lose flavor after a few months, so it’s better to have a smaller amount (maybe five that appear in a lot of your favorite recipes) on hand, and go through them quickly. This is also one place where quality matters. Look for fresh, strong-smelling spices, and buy from bulk jars when you can. That way you can buy just the amount you need, and smell it to make sure it’s fresh and still potent.

Hardy, woodsy herbs like thyme and rosemary do well if given some time to cook with a dish — they can sometimes taste bitter if added too close to serving. But delicate herbs like basil and chervil can lose their punch if cooked for too long. Usually, these herbs are best stirred into a dish or sprinkled over top just before serving.

Spices usually need a bit of fat to develop their flavor and make sure the flavor is carried throughout the dish. Be careful, though, because they can burn if cooked over high heat for too long. Simmering spices in liquid will also pull their flavor into a dish. If your dish tastes bitter, it could be that you used too much spice, your spices were old, or they burned when you added them to the dish.

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

We can’t stress this enough, but when making a dish, taste and salt, taste and salt, taste and salt. Salt can go into water when making grains or pasta (as we noted in our noodles cooking lesson, the water should “taste as salty as the sea”). As your food is cooking — in the pan or in the pot — as soon as the ingredients are cooked enough to be safe, it’s worth taking a bit out, tasting it, and if it’s not yet delicious, adding a bit of salt, stirring it in, and then tasting again. The only real exception to this is when making a sauce or stock, in which you’re trying to reduce liquid, and the concentration of salts can easily increase too much.

What You Don’t Need to Learn

You don’t need to own (or even spend a lot of time learning about) all the many different kinds of salts or spices in order to be a good cook, or make tasty food! These ingredients can be expensive — especially rare finishing salts, and hard-to-find spices. In fact, it’s much better to have a few things on hand that you use regularly, than have dozens of jars gathering dust on a shelf or in your pantry.

Let’s Take Seasoning to the Next Level

Once you have the basics down, seasoning food is not too difficult. But here are a few tricks that can make you salt a little smarter.

Use your hands.

When seasoning during cooking, whether or not the recipe calls for a specific amount of salt, avoid scooping some up with a spoon and dumping it into the dish (or worse, using a salt shaker). Instead, add the salt to your hand and use your fingers to sprinkle it in.

Similarly, when adding spice to a dish that’s hot, or currently cooking, avoid holding a jar over the dish and shaking. Instead, measure out your desired amount with your measuring spoon and gently shake that over the dish. If no specific amount is called for, put a small bit in the palm of your hand and then add it in.

There are several reasons for this. With shakers, it lets you avoid the occasional “loose lid” problem, and dump far too much unwanted salt or spice in. Also, any steam rising from a hot dish can make salt or spices in a shaker clump. Next, you’ll get much better coverage when sprinkling salt in particular with your fingers (more on that, below). But perhaps most importantly, by holding the salt and sprinkling it on (and then tasting), you will begin to develop a literal feel for how much you’re seasoning a dish.

Get more coverage.

It may feel silly, or pretentious doing this, but Salt Bae actually does it right (his knife skills aren’t bad, either) — hold your hand high above the food and sprinkle seasoning from there. The reason? If you’re too close to your food, you’ll end up getting a lot in one area and not enough in another.

Salt in advance.

There are times when you want to salt food well in advance of cooking it. This is because salt can actually have a chemical effect on food, either changing the texture, or the amount of water or liquid the food can hold. With meat, you can add salt at least 40 minutes, and up to 24 hours (called dry brining), ahead of time. This gives the salt a chance to work into the meat, breaking down tough proteins and helping the meat hold its juices in better. (If you don’t have at least 40 minutes, you’re better off waiting to salt immediately before cooking.)

With some vegetables, salt helps drain off excess moisture, resulting in a crispier texture. This is especially true for firm vegetables like cabbage. You may have been instructed, at some point, to salt eggplant in advance, as well, to reduce bitterness. There’s some contention about this at Kitchn. Some of our editors feel it’s unnecessary. Others swear by it. According to Kenji Lopez, the salt is less about reducing bitterness, and more about reducing moisture, making it easier to fry (although he says other methods may work better). In either case, the salt is used to affect the texture, as opposed to the flavor, of these foods.

What If You’ve Over-Salted?

First, don’t worry! It happens. If you can, try to add more unseasoned ingredients to spread the seasoning around. For a soup or stew, this could mean adding a cup or two of stock (or even water), but it could also mean adding a few more vegetables, or even grains, lentils, or noodles. If the liquid is incredibly salty, you might even try pouring some of it out, first.

For other foods that only taste mildly salty, Samin Nosrat advises trying to balance the flavors with an acid or a fat: Try adding lemon juice, or olive oil, or a similar thing to a few spoonfuls of the dish. If that makes it taste better, then you can add it to the entire dish.

Occasionally, though, over-salted just means over-salted. And when that happens, it’s best to just start over again, and season more carefully. And don’t feel bad — if you learned something from it, then it wasn’t a waste.

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.

  • An adjustable pepper grinder will let you choose between fine and coarse grinds, as needed.
  • Instead of a shaker, kosher salt is best kept in a small bowl or salt cellar.
  • Grinding whole spices is a good way to keep them tasting fresh longer. Get an electric grinder that you keep separate from any coffee grinders, to keep the tastes from mingling.

5 Essential Spice Recipes

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

Watch the video and consider how to layer seasoning. If you haven’t yet, watch the Crash Course video, above. Then consider what salting to taste at every step of a dish would be like in your own kitchen. Where do you keep your salt now? What kind of container is it in? How would you need to adjust your setup so you could try this? Bonus assignment: If you have time, go through your spice cabinet and clean out all the expired jars. Replace anything you’ve used within the last 30 days.

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Practice seasoning mashed potatoes! Follow this recipe for making a small amount of mashed potatoes. Start by seasoning the water — as we learned in Day Eight’s noodle lesson, water should taste as salty as the sea. Add 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt at a time, until it tastes that way. Then follow the instructions to boil and mash, adding butter and dairy. Taste the unseasoned potatoes first, and then add 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt at a time, tasting as you go, until the potatoes taste right.

Check your work: How much salt did it take for the water to taste salty? What did the unseasoned potatoes taste like? How much salt did it take for the potatoes to taste right?

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Make a meatloaf and practice tasting as you cook. Follow this recipe for meatloaf. As you cook the veggies, taste them, add a little kosher salt, and taste again. After you’ve incorporated the ground meat and eggs into the bowl but before you’ve added any salt or pepper, take a half teaspoon of the mixture and cook it in the microwave or in a pan, and taste it. Then add kosher salt in 1/4-teaspoon increments, continuing to cook and taste small bites. Continue to adjust the seasoning and taste until it seems right. Then cook as directed.

Check your work: How much salt did you add to the vegetables? What did the unseasoned meatloaf taste like? How much salt did it take for the meatloaf to taste right? The instructions call for 1 teaspoon of salt. Did you use more, or less?

What It Takes to Be a Seasoning Expert

Seasoning is quite literally a matter of taste. And the more you taste food as you cook it, the more opportunity you will have to adjust the taste to match your personal preferences. Don’t think of tasting as “practice makes perfect” — think of it as a chance to experience the food you’re making while it’s in the process of being made. The more you taste, the more aware you can be to what’s possible.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

Credit: Kitchn