It’s very common that the last step in a recipe is “season to taste,” which means “add some set of additional ingredients until it comes out the way you want.” That is both liberating and intimidating. Great, I can do whatever I want, but where do I start, how do I know what will help, and how do I know when I’m done?
The good news is that by the time you get to “season to taste,” the recipe should essentially be done; if things went well you’re 95% of the way to the result you want already, the people who are going to eat it would happily do so in its current state, and what’s left is just adding some finishing touches to make it even more special and filled with love. So you could do nothing at this point and most of the time things would be fine. Unless something went terribly wrong and you’re doing an emergency fix, now is not the time to be making big adjustments; focus on fine tuning. And plan to do it repeatedly: taste it, make a small change, and then taste it again; keep going until you like it. I keep a mug of small spoons next to my stovetop so I can grab a clean one at any time (no double-dipping!) and do a quick taste test. It comes in very handy when I reach the “season to taste” stage.
I would encourage you to read through this piece on flavor, because it lays out the basic framework for how to think about fine-tuning a recipe at the end. There are five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory/umami. You can also throw “fatty” into this mix. Separately, there is the hot/spicy vs. cool dimension as sensed by trigeminal nerves on your tongue. Those are the variables we get to work with.
When you take a taste, here are some questions you should ask yourself:
- Is there not enough of one of the tastes?
- Is there too much of one of the tastes?
- How is the overall balance?
- Is there some ingredient I expected to taste, but can’t?
“Not enough” is a good problem to have, because at this stage all we can do is add things; we can’t remove anything that we’ve already added at an earlier stage. The first thing to try is to add more of an ingredient that’s already in your recipe; that’s often the easiest approach and it doesn’t risk confusing the flavor with some new thing. But that isn’t always an option: for example, if the savory taste originally came from meat, you can’t simply add more meat at the end, so you need to think about other options for boosting the savory dimension. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for every dimension of taste.
I keep on a turntable next to my stovetop a set of small containers with things that I use for making taste adjustments: salt, black pepper (for bitterness), hot sauce (for spiciness), olive oil (for fat). In my fridge I have lemon and lime juice (sourness), white wine (bitterness), soy sauce, teriyaki sauce and fish sauce (savory), and butter and margarine (fat). In my pantry, I have sake (bitterness), red and white vinegar (sourness), various kinds of sugar, honey, molasses and maple syrup (sweetness), and herbs and spices (bitterness and spiciness). Remember, add a bit and re-taste; don’t go too fast or too big in one step, because you can’t go back.
Having too much of a flavor is a tougher problem, but there are often solutions. Here’s a table of ways to counteract a too-strong taste:
Balance is also important. Is one taste overpowering another? Maybe that’s a good and intentional thing, or maybe you want to try to enhance one so that they are on even terms.
Finally, think about “hidden flavors.” Is there something that you added but can’t taste? It’s possible that it cooked off, but it’s also possible that it’s still in there, but it isn’t dissolved into a state where our taste buds can pick it up. Some ingredients are readily tasted (our saliva does the trick), but others need to be dissolved in either water, alcohol, fat or acid. Look through the recipe’s ingredients and see if any of these are missing. A drop of rice wine, sherry or brandy mixed in (it doesn’t take much alcohol) could unlock a whole new flavor. The same goes for a drizzle of olive oil (fat) or hot sauce (acid). This is hit-and-miss; sometimes it accomplishes nothing, but there’s no way to know for sure until you try it.
“Season to taste” is an opportunity to be social, to invite in family members and guests into your kitchen. For as long as you have clean spoons, everyone can participate in taste-testing and suggesting what it might need. This also has two side-benefits: people will tell you what flavors they like (notes for future cooking); and they will also be more invested in eating the result since they helped create it.
Seasoning to taste is one of my favorite parts of cooking. It’s a license to be creative and experimental, and it’s also fun. Just take it in slow and incremental steps – it’s perfectly okay to get a lot of spoons dirty – and enjoy the ride.