I know, you’re asking yourself right now, “Who doesn’t taste their food when they’re cooking?” Tasting what you make is such a fundamental principal in preparing lip-smackingly good food it boggles my mind that the easiest of all cooking steps is overlooked so frequently. Whether it’s my culinary students, friends, acquaintances, or the wait staff in a restaurant, I encounter non-tasters regularly. It’s a tragedy really, much like the food that comes from a non-taster’s kitchen! Here’s the how and why of properly tasting during the cooking process.
- Start tasting from the very beginning. It’s important to know the flavor and texture of an item in its raw state. Uncooked ingredients like vegetables, herbs and spices all taste and feel different than their cooked versions. Understanding these differences is valuable in determining the appropriate doneness of an ingredient. Do try to avoid tasting raw poultry and things you’re allergic to. Just saying.
- Tasting involves texture not just flavor. When tasting food the texture is just as important as flavor. A raw green bean tastes starchy with a strong hint of grass and has a fibrous, crunchy, mouth feel. As the green bean cooks the starchy flavor softens and becomes palatable, even sweet. Equally important is the texture changes that occur. Instead of a fibrous, chewy, crunchy texture the beans outer layer begins to soften and becomes tender. Ultimately, knowing when an ingredient is cooked properly involves both texture and flavor.
- Smelling. It’s not just for wine, coffee and flowers. Tasting is mostly smell. The basic sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami are tongue “flavors”. The millions of other complex flavors we encounter daily are a function of our olfactory sense. Smelling your ingredients and during cooking process helps build the library of stereoisomers, which is the chemistry of smelling.
- Taste frequently and with every change. Taste. Then taste again. And again. And again. Why?
First, because the ingredients you bought and prepared last week are not the same this week. For example, green beans today could be more bitter, thicker, or more fibrous than what we buy next week or 3 months from now, which would require a change to cooking time or even seasoning.
Second, cooking based on time alone is a recipe for disaster. Pun intended. Recipes are only guidelines and should not be followed exactly. This is means cooking times also. Doneness should be determined through taste and feel. Frequent tasting prevents under and over-cooking.
Third, every ingredient you add changes the personality of the dish. Great cooks understand the relationships between the ingredients they are using and chose them specifically based on how they mingle. Building this library of flavors involves tasting with every addition. Salt, pepper, herbs, spices, aromatics, meats, fruits, vegetables, etc.., will all lend a flavor profile or characteristic, which adds to the complexity and depth of the finished recipe.
*I’ve tried many a recipe that I liked in concept, yet I didn’t quite like the flavor. Not everyone likes the same types of flavors, it’s bound to happen, but that’s no reason to condemn a good recipe idea. Putting my finger on the ingredient I want to omit or replace is a culinary skill. A skill that anyone can learn and it comes from tasting at every step.
Lastly, flavors bloom. This means that spices and herbs will increase in intensity over time becoming stronger in flavor. Tasting frequently gets you in-tune with how an ingredient reacts and improves your familiarity with strength or intensity of flavor. Too little or too much of a good thing is often the culprit in poorly seasoned food.