Getting the flavor we want

Getting the flavor we want

What is it with the fear of flavor? When even restaurant kitchens use little or no salt in their dishes for fear of complaints, we as customers may be spending too much time eating at Amish buffets. I would say it’s a post-COVID palate adjustment, but this has been famously the case for decades.

I think it grew out of the home cooking of the depression and war years. People were mainly eating soggy, tasteless canned food and casseroles, with little choice unless there was a farm stand nearby in season.

These things were served in households around the country and became associated with mom’s home cooking. Now one often sees the term “white people food,” associated with any dish that is bland, boring and tasteless.

I sometimes see famous chefs talking about the few things you can easily do at home to get professional-level results. One of them is invariably the correct use of salt. If you are just grabbing a salt shaker and adding it at the end, your food will just taste salty. The trick is to use the right salt and add it in the right way.

As I’ve talked about here before, table salt, the cheap, plentiful iodized stuff, is best left on the table for the odd time something needs a little extra. Its very fine texture, made to flow freely from the little holes in the shaker, also delivers a lot of saltiness per pinch, making it hard to control.

Most recipes in 21st-century cookbooks are asking for kosher salt and, as often as not, a specific brand. Diamond Crystal kosher salt isn’t as strong as table salt, making it very difficult to over salt food, even though you are using quite a bit. It’s a little safety net, giving you plenty of control of just how flavorful your dish will be.

“Flavorful,” rather than “salty,” is the correct term here. You’re aiming for a well-seasoned dish, and here is where timing is important. You want to add salt throughout the cooking process of a savory dish.

If you are making a tomato sauce, for example, you would add a starting amount while sweating onions and garlic and let them absorb it. When the tomatoes go in, you add a little more salt, and once you’ve got things bubbling away, you taste and add more if needed. It will become salty tasting if you only add salt at the end before serving. Adding it along the way allows it to do its job, which is to enhance the flavor of your food, not make it salty.

The same goes for pepper. Our ancestors literally conquered territory and murdered everyone in it to get their pepper and other spices, so it deserves a little respect and plenty of judicious use. If you’re adding salt to a dish while cooking, the pepper grinder should be an automatic next reach. Get it in there and let it cook into the food, tasting and adjusting near the end.

One place you do want things to taste salty is when cooking pasta. Once the water is boiling, add a good handful of kosher salt and let it dissolve. When you taste pasta-cooking water, it should taste about as salty as your tears or the sea. It won’t make the pasta salty, but it will make it taste delicious.

Learning to add flavor to your food is a matter of carefully following good recipes by respected cooks, then changing things up as you feel more confident. Each herb and spice brings its own party to the table, and it’s our job to harness that and combine things to get the flavor we want. The first thing to get the hang of, though, is salt and how to use it correctly. You’ll be very happy with the results.

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