If you’ve watched a Food Network show or spent time with a chef, you’ve probably noticed that professionals treat the cooking process a little differently than a typical home cook. There’s a fundamental rule that chefs follow—the “season as you go” rule—that somehow gets lost in translation in cookbooks or in the hectic effort to try to get dinner on the table at the end of a long day. But this little extra step is the answer to the question that my friends invariably ask, which is: “How can I make my food taste like food from a restaurant?” Really, what they’re asking is, “Where’s the flavor?”
Seasoning as you go—that is, seasoning each group of ingredients at each step of the recipe with salt and pepper, spices, and fresh herbs —demonstrates respect for each individual component of a dish by treating each ingredient as though it were meant to be served alone. We want to make sure that each time an ingredient is added, we add a bit of salt and pepper to properly season that ingredient such that if we removed it from the pan and ate it, it would be satisfying in itself. We season the entire dish with dried spices and herbs early on in the cooking process to ensure they perfume the whole dish, and we add fresh herbs toward the end of cooking so that they retain the fresh flavor that will brighten the entire dish.
Remember that if herbs are dried, their flavor is concentrated because the water in the leaves that diluted the flavor in its fresh state is now absent. So the rule of thumb is to use less dried herbs than fresh if you have to substitute. My trick is to start with ⅓ of the original amount required and adjust up as needed.
Seasoning dishes as you go has three distinct benefits:
- Small amounts of salt added to ingredients such as meats and raw vegetables draws out their moisture during sautéing, which concentrates and deepens the flavor. When our mouths sense a balanced flavor, we’re less likely to want to add salt at the table. In fact, this technique can reduce the overall sodium content and improve the flavor of a dish.
- Spending an extra five seconds adjusting the seasoning of each ingredient eliminates the time spent panicking at the end, when we’ve over- or under-seasoned and have to regroup. Similarly, adding dried herbs and spices as well as woody fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme leaves toward the beginning of your recipe preparation ensures that you allow enough time for their full flavor to develop.
- Seasoning throughout recipe preparation creates a more balanced and rounded flavor, which improves flavor and gives you that “restaurant taste” you’re looking for. Remember, too, that the longer you spend trying to mitigate bad seasoning, the longer your food stays in the pan, losing flavor quality as well as nutritional value.
- Adding fresh tender herbs like parsley and chives at the end of cooking adds a pop of color and a fresh taste that can counter the richness or strong flavor of many dishes. They almost serve the same purpose as a squeeze of lemon juice over fish: they wake up the flavors.
Give it a try. Make a meat sauce.
A simple meat sauce is a great way to experiment with your new technique. If you over-season, you can just add more tomatoes to dilute the saltiness, so you’re risking nothing. The next time you make a meat sauce, for example, add a bit of salt to your meat while sautéing: my rule of thumb for seasoning meat is ½ teaspoon per pound. You can always add more if it’s required, but it’s harder to take it out.
Once you’ve removed your meat and begun to cook your aromatics salt them as well, but this time use less: about ¼ teaspoon per pound, since some of the flavor and salt remains in the pan from sautéing the meat. Again, you can add more, but just this very small amount of salt will transform your vegetables from boring to brilliant. This would also be the time to add any dried herbs you’ll be using, such as dried oregano and basil.
Finally, don’t forget to add a bit of salt and pepper when you add your tomatoes as well. And after your sauce has simmered and you’re just a few minutes away from serving, toss in a handful of chopped fresh basil and/or parsley leaves to finish the sauce off.
Remember that none of these sauce ingredients came pre-seasoned, and it’s much easier to estimate their seasoning requirements alone than combined in a mass in the pan. You’ll find that your cooking efforts are rewarded with better outcomes, and you may find yourself eating at “Chez Me” more often.