A seasoning is anything you add to your food to enhance the flavor. That can be salt, pepper, herbs, spices, and even citrus like lemon juice. And like so many things, there's a right way to season your food and a wrong way. Here are seven of the worst seasoning mistakes, and how to avoid them.
01 of 07
You Didn't Use Enough Salt
The Iliad is the earliest work of Western literature, and it also happens to be the earliest cookbook. In Book 9, Homer describes how Achilles' friend Patroclus sprinkles salt on loins of sheep, goat and pork before roasting them over glowing coals. Nearly 3,000 years later, no one has come up with a better way of seasoning roasted meat.
Today, we use Kosher salt, and a generation ago, table salt was the norm. But the two aren't the same—table salt is twice as salty by volume as Kosher... salt. So if you try to substitute, make sure to use half as much table salt as the recipe calls for. Better yet, get a box of Kosher salt.
But it's not only meats that need salt. Your cooking liquids for pasta, potatoes and even poached eggs need to be salty.
When a recipe says "season to taste," that's your clue that you you're supposed to be able to taste the salt.
The right way: Season boldly. But also see the next mistake...
02 of 07
You Forgot to Taste As You Go
This is one of those mistakes that easy to make, but which can ultimately lead to disaster. There you are, cooking away, stirring, chopping, seasoning, simmering, adding a little of this and a little of that, and before you know it, you've added too much—of something. If it's something like cayenne pepper, you've got one kind of trouble. If it's too much salt, it's another kind.
(Here's a tip on what to do if you've added too much salt to something.)
Still, it's in... many ways one of the most frustrating kinds of mistakes because it's completely avoidable. You don't need any special culinary skill or talent. You just need to remember to do it! Get in the habit of tasting as you go.
It's easy with soups and sauces and things that you simmer. Just take a taste now and then to see how things are going.
When it comes to seasoning ground meats, you might be leery of tasting raw meat. Some cooks don't mind doing it, but if you're not comfortable, just cook up a tiny little piece of it for tasting.
Another good habit is, whatever amount of seasoning a recipe calls for (and to the extent it's possible with your recipe), add half at the beginning and then add the remaining half a little at a time at the end, tasting as you go.
The right way: Taste as you go.
03 of 07
You Used Preground Black Pepper
Black pepper is right up there with salt as one of the most important seasonings in the culinary arts. It may not have been mentioned by Homer, but pepper is a close second. For that reason, there's no excuse for using that preground black dust they sell as pepper at the store. That product is a throwback to the era of salt and pepper shakers.
Now, you can buy a $30 pepper grinder, but you don't have to. These days you can buy whole peppercorns in a disposable glass grinder, and... it'll do the job just as well.
There's a couple of reasons pepper you ground yourself is superior to the preground kind. One, like all dried spices, black pepper starts to lose its potency as soon as it's ground. So grinding it yourself means it will be more flavorful. And two, pepper should have texture. The crack of fragments of peppercorns will do wonders for a steak, above and beyond the spiciness it adds. The crunch alone is reason to grind your own.
The right way: Grind your own black pepper by hand as you use it.
04 of 07
You Added Your Dried Herbs Too Late
Simply put, herbs are leaves. Thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, these are all leaves. For the most part, fresh herbs are better—more flavorful, more aromatic, more colorful.
But sometimes dry herbs are the only feasible option, and using dry herbs is not of itself a cooking mistake. The mistake is adding them at the wrong stage of cooking.
When you're cooking with dry herbs, add them at the beginning of cooking. Add fresh herbs toward the end. The reason for this is that fresh herbs contain... more volatile oils and a little bit of cooking is all they need for their full flavor and aroma to bloom.
Dried herbs, on the other hand, take a bit longer to activate. Indeed, if you're using dried herbs in a preparation such as salad dressing where there is no heat at all involved, it can take a few hours for the flavors to be completely released.
The right way: Add dried herbs early in the cooking process to make sure their flavors are fully released.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Your Ground Spices Were Stale
Spices are any other dried part of a plant, whether it's the seeds, bark, buds, roots or what have you. So while unlike herbs, spices are already dried, your spices will still go stale in a relatively short amount of time.
The best way to ensure your spices are fresh is to avoid preground spices altogether and simply grind your own. You should assume that any preground spices are already stale before you even buy them. That's how quickly the essential oils will evaporate.
The solution: Get... a cheap coffee grinder and grind your own spices. Whole seeds or buds or berries or whatever they are will stay fresh longer, and then you'll only grind what you need right when you need it. In fact, many stores these days offer bulk spices, where you can buy only what you need. You could buy literally a single nutmeg if that's all you needed. (Note: You will never need more than a single whole nutmeg at a time.)
The right way: Grind your own spices in a spice grinder or coffee grinder.
06 of 07
You Forgot The Lemon
Lemon juice is undoubtedly a seasoning, and it's especially wonderful when it comes to adding brightness to the mild, delicate flavors of fish and seafood.
The same is true for vegetables: As a general rule, if it tastes good with melted butter, it'll taste good with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice on it as well. But veggies like asparagus, green beans, broccoli, beets, brussels sprouts and mushrooms are particularly amenable to the welcome burst of citrus and astringency that fresh lemon... provides. It's practically a must in homemade salad dressing.
Chicken also cries out for lemon: whether it's the juice in the marinade or sauce, or a whole lemon sliced and lovingly situated in the bird's body cavity before roasting.
But lemon also performs its tangy magic in sauces and soups—not so much as to make it lemony, but just enough to wake up the palate: even in dishes where you might not think of adding lemon: like tomato sauce, or, yes, mashed potatoes.
The right way: If a dish seems to be missing something, before you reach for more salt, add a squeeze of lemon.
07 of 07
You Added MSG...
...Or perhaps more correctly, you added MSG unintentionally. MSG (short for monosodium glutamate), is a seasoning derived from an amino acid. It's naturally present in foods like mushrooms and parmesan cheese, and is the source of a flavor called umami, sometimes described as "savory," "meaty" or "earthy."
It also enhances other flavors, as if it somehow has the ability to unlock unused flavor receptors in your tongue. Food undoubtedly tastes better with MSG.
So far, so... good. MSG has gotten a bad reputation, with people blaming it for any number of physical symptoms. The latest studies, however, suggest that it's harmless.
The point here isn't to say that MSG is good or bad, but merely to say that you ought to at least be aware of when you're adding it. Like for instance, anytime you use products like Accent, as well as many other seasoning salts, bouillon cubes and packaged spice and gravy mixes. You can read more about MSG here.
The right way: If you're going to use MSG, you should do so knowingly, not by accident.