So many people think they can't cook, or can't cook that well, when only a few changes can make a huge difference in their dishes. I was thinking about this while making a batch of soup earlier this week. After it had simmered for a good long while I started tasting and tweaking, which is the final and most crucial step in cooking, at least for me. Of course you must start with good quality ingredients and use proper technique, but it's the home stretch where I think people lose their confidence and think they can't cook because their recipe doesn't seem "right" right off the bat. When I taste something critically, I am looking for some very particular qualities, namely salt level, acidity, richness, and aromatics. Once you master these, almost everything coming out of your kitchen can be more awesome than you think.
The first one is pretty straight-forward, but it's good to remember that everyone has a different threshold for salt. (Which, by the way, is why I tend to slightly under-season the food at Tastefully Served- you can always add more, but you definitely can't take it away!) Salt is more than just salty-ness, though. It is amazing how much more you taste the food itself when it is seasoned properly. The carrots taste more carrot-y, tomatoes taste more like tomatoes, and so on. I even put salt on melons-it brings out the flavor beautifully. I recommend adding salt as you cook, and in small increments, tasting after each addition, to see how it affects the final product.
Next is acidity. When I was studying wine, acidity was one of those buzz words that industry insiders threw around that made me feel inferior. Finally, someone explained it simply as whether or not, when you finished a sip of wine, your mouth watered and it made you want more. Well, food works like that, too. Acidity is all about brightening- when a dish tastes flat, heavy or one-note, it's time to bring out the acid. Lemons and limes are wonderful, and there is also a whole grocery store aisle devoted to different types of vinegars dedicated to this task. Each one has a different flavor profile to complement different types of food (think balsamic for Italian, red wine vinegar for Greek, champagne vinegar for French, etc). A relatively small amount drizzled into a sauce, soup or risotto at the very end is heaven.
The counter to acidity is richness. This is adding butter, heavy cream, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, tomato paste or even a thickening agent like a cornstarch slurry or a roux to something to give it more body, more oomph. These ingredients round out a dish adding texture and mouthfeel and generally making it feel balanced and luscious.
And finally, aromatics, which is often fresh herbs or spices, as well as onions and garlic. Onions, garlic and some spices are the aromatics most commonly used in the beginning of cooking, and fresh herbs will be used to add more flavor in the end, but plenty of spices can be added late without the benefit of long-cooking- think red chili flakes, cumin, dried oregano, etc.
All of these ingredients are the pick-me-ups that can change a dish in the final moments and take it from ok to "oh, wow!". Keep tasting your food, keep finessing and you may surprise yourself with just how well you can cook.
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