This is Part Two of Becky Selengut’s book How to Taste review. If you haven’t read Part 1 to learn about being a supertaster, the importance of salt, and why you need acidity, click here!
Cooking Tips from How to Taste by Becky Selengut
In Becky Selengut’s book How to Taste: The Curious Cook’s Handbook to Seasoning and Balance, from Umami to Acid and Beyond with Recipes, readers learn how to fix common problems with under- or over-seasoned foods, how to taste fat and acid, and a bit about the science behind creating masterful dishes.
Where How to Taste differs from most other recipe and reference books on cooking and taste is in the delivery of recipes. There are Experiment Time recipes where you add each element, taste, think about what you are tasting, and then add the next element until the recipe is finished. With these recipes, you can put the theoretical knowledge into practice and truly value its importance to the final dish.
How to trick your brain to add sweetness without sugar
Here’s the thing: salt isn’t the only flavorant (flavor booster). Sugar is too! Refined, granulated sugar doesn’t add its own taste to food besides a general sweetness. But did you know adding aromatics (cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder), dried fruits (raisins), and caramelizing foods adds sweetness without extra refined sugar?
Try the coffee test from How to Taste! Add a pinch of cinnamon, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of sugar to three small separate cups of coffee. The coffee with cinnamon (an aromatic) and with a pinch of salt will seem sweeter than just a black coffee.
Why you need fat
Fat is not only an important energy source, it helps carry flavors, creates a pleasant mouthfeel, and carries nutrients when paired with other fat soluble molecules like the vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat transmits heat, prevents food from sticking, and helps emulsify (blend) together two otherwise incompatible ingredients like vinegar and oil. Fat helps add air when baking and reduces gluten formation when making dough.
But, too much cream or fat can excessively coat the tongue and reduce the ability to feel the texture of a food and taste each element. Take a sip of milk versus 35% cream and eat a square of dark chocolate after. With the milk, you will still taste the bitterness of the dark chocolate, not so after the cream.
Bitterness = toxin?
We have way more bitterness receptors on our tongues than sugar receptors. We have evolved to recognize bitterness (a signifier of a potential toxin) almost immediately to protect ourselves. Bitterness also activates saliva glands and stimulates digestion. Some examples of bitter foods are dark chocolate, black coffee, broccoli, kale, and lemon or lime peels. Experiment with taking a sip of black coffee and see how your tongue reacts. If you’re not used to bitter foods, you may notice your face scrunches up. Try a piece of dark chocolate that is 60% and compare it with milk chocolate.
What is umami?
If you’ve read about How to Develop Your Palate, you may be familiar with umami, also known as savory. Umami combines information from multiple receptors on the tongue that are sensitive to recognizing the breakdown of protein in the form of amino acids. Protein-rich foods that are cured, fermented, or are fungal are rich sources of that savory umami taste. Mushrooms, ketchup, parmesan, soy sauce, and meat are good sources of umami. Add a bit of soy sauce to your next vegetable soup and see how the flavour deepens. Experiment adding sources of umami to your meals and see how the flavour changes.
How to fix over-seasoning
We’ve come to the best part of Selengut’s book How to Taste, where she talks about fixing over- and under-seasoning in each chapter. Maybe you tried to wing seasoning without following a recipe or maybe you misread 1tsp for 1tbsp and don’t know how to fix it.
When you are fixing overseasoning, whether it is too much salt, sugar, acid (citrus juice), or bitterness, here are 3 easy steps you can take no matter what:
- Add volume (Dilute)
First, add volume in the form of more water, broth, cream, if you over seasoned a soup or stew. Although adding volume can change the original texture of the soup or stew, it can be thickened again with a bit of cornstarch slurry (a mixture of whisked cornstarch and water).
- Add more ingredients
Add more of the ingredients that were overseasoned to balance out the dish. Did you accidentally pour too much salt or sugar on carrots you were roasting? Roast some more and mix it all together.
- Add salt/fat/sweetness/acid/bitterness
Here, you will have to add a component that helps reduce what was overseasoned.
Too salty? Add a combination of acid (lemon juice, vinegar) and sweetness (sugar, honey, maple syrup) to reduce the salty taste.
Too fatty? Add acid to cut through the fat.
Too sweet? Add acid, bitterness, and salt to cut through the sugar.
Too acidic? Add sweetness (sugar, natural or otherwise) or fat (butter, cream, oil).
Too bitter? Add sweetness or fat.
How to fix under-seasoning
So we know what to do to fix an over seasoned dish but what about a dish that’s just plain boring? If the flavor stops in the middle of your tongue, your dish is underseasoned.
- Check the salt
The first step to fixing an under seasoned is checking the salt. Add more salt to the dish, starting with small amounts and try it again. If you can taste the dish all the way to the back of your mouth, the dish is properly salted.
- Check acid
If the dish feels too heavy on the tongue or tastes greasy or dull, try adding a bit of acid in the form of vinegar, wine, or lemon/lime juice. Acidity helps bring the dish up, energizes the food, and lifts the flavors.
- Check fat
If your dish is too sour and makes your mouth pucker a bit too much, try adding a bit of fat in the form of cream, butter, or oil, whatever makes sense for your meal.
- Check sweetness
A bit of sugar into an otherwise acidic or salty dish can help balance out the flavors and bring out the natural sweetness in vegetables, fruits, or meats.
- Check umami
If you have gone through these steps and your meal is still lacking something, add a bit of umami in the form of mushrooms, soy sauce, miso, or cheese to punch up the flavors.
Did you learn anything new about how to taste or how to fix an over- or under-seasoned dish? Let me know in the comments below!