Season to taste: How to tweak your cooking and elevate it

With these simple storecupboard staples you can transform your cooking, if you know how

Salt is the seasoning that is most likely to improve your dish and also the one that is most likely to be misused. Photograph: iStock

It’s the last line in so many recipes and it may be the one that is most misunderstood: “Season to taste.” What exactly does that mean? It sounds like maybe you should go rummaging through your spice drawer, adding a bit of this and that until your dish finally tastes like something. If you’ve tried that approach, you know that what you are most likely to wind up with is a mess, a hodgepodge of flavours.

But there are seasonings that will help improve the flavour of almost any dish. And the good news is that these are not some exotic alchemical substances, but are common kitchen staples that are almost surely in your cabinets right now.

First off, it’s important to understand the difference between seasonings and flavourings. The latter add distinct and identifiable tastes to a dish. Seasonings, on the other hand, help to bring out the underlying flavours that are already lurking there, waiting to be brought to the fore.

The most useful seasonings fall into three broad categories: salt, acid and fat. The considered addition of even tiny amounts of one or more of these can be all that it takes to transform any dish from lacklustre to vibrant. Notice I specified “considered addition”. The goal here is not to add another perceptible flavour, but to highlight the tastes that are already there.


Let’s start with salt, because that is the seasoning that is most likely to improve your dish and also the one that is most likely to be misused. Salting should rarely result in food that tastes salty (crisps aside). Rather, salt in small doses will reveal hidden depths of flavour that have been hitherto masked.

After only a couple of passes you will find that even though the dish doesn't taste perceptibly salty, it does seem somehow more alive

There is a scientific explanation for this. Often in the literature, salt is referred to as a “potentiator”. That is, a chemical substance that enhances the impact of other substances. Flavour scientists disagree on exactly how this works in cooking, but the explanation most seem to favour is that salt decreases our taste buds’ sensitivity to bitterness, which, though present in very small amounts and very subtle, can mask other flavours.

Technical explanations aside, you can taste this for yourself the next time you’re faced with a nearly finished dish that somehow still tastes dull. Stir in a bit of salt – just a pinch, even less than a quarter teaspoon at a time. Taste as you go.

After only a couple of passes you will find that even though the dish doesn’t taste perceptibly salty, it does seem somehow more alive. There is a happy buzz in your mouth and you notice subtle flavours that you hadn’t been able to taste before.

Finishing salts, such as Maldon or fleur de sel, are good for this too, but only when used just before serving. They actually aren’t all that different in flavour from other salts, but they do differ in crystalline structure, which affects how they are perceived on the tongue. This advantage is lost if they are allowed to melt into the dish.

Acidic structure

Another seasoning solution for a boring dish is acidity. Whether it comes from citrus fruit, vinegar, or some other source, acidity lends structure to a dish. Think of it as supplying the backbone from which other flavours hang. Again, the goal is not a dish that tastes tart. You want to add just enough that what might have seemed dull and jumbled brightens and becomes more sharply defined.

I find this to be particularly useful with stews and soups. The long, slow cooking that creates such a marvellous marriage of flavours sometimes succeeds a bit too well and you wind up with what seems like an indistinguishable muddle. A splash of vinegar will set it right.

That little bit of fat will add a silky texture to the dish, which makes it seem more delicious

Unlike salt, which is a single, fairly uniform seasoning, acids can also act as a flavouring. For example, I find apple cider vinegar to be softer and more subtle than, say, red wine vinegar. Asian rice vinegar has a beguiling sweetness. The different citrus will add a subtle hint of fruit (note the word “subtle”: most of the distinctive taste of citrus is contained in the oils found in the zest).

If, rather than dull and muddled the dish seems thin and confused, a bit of fat can be the answer. Try it the next time you make a quick-cooked pasta sauce. Stir in a dab of butter or a glug of good olive oil just before serving and taste the difference.

That little bit of fat will add a silky texture to the dish, which makes it seem more delicious (flavour scientists call this “mouthfeel”, a phrase I find slightly creepy). And the deeper, meatier flavours add a unifying bass note to the flavour mix, a foundation that ties together what might previously have seemed disparate and confused.

While all of these tricks can improve a dish, it is important to remember that they are nothing more than final tweaks that presume careful, thoughtful cooking has come up just a hair short. As always, great flavour requires tasting and adjusting a dish at every stage. It is built from the ground up, not with a flurry of last-minute embellishments.