One night every month, Chris Brown, a top chef in Toronto, lets amateur cooks buy their way onto his kitchen crew for a multicourse fundraising dinner. And every month, the vast majority of those amateurs go bug-eyed when he reaches for the salt.
Brown, who runs the catering division at The Stop, a food-focused charity, doesn’t chastely sprinkle a few grains from a shaker before serving, the way most home cooks do. He seasons little by little, at almost every stage of cooking, tasting as he goes. Meat and poultry get the blizzard treatment – he seasons from a foot above the counter, letting kosher salt fall like a snowstorm from his fingers.
“The meat should look like it’s completely covered in salt, like the sugar on a funnel cake,” he said.
Yet what’s most surprising is that the chef’s dishes don’t taste salty. They taste heightened, but balanced. His greens taste like greens, only supercharged, his meats intensely meaty, his chocolate cake spectacular. (Dark chocolate and sea salt are one of life’s great pairings.) His cooking tastes the way cooking almost never tastes at home.
Most home cooks don’t know how to season – they don’t use nearly enough salt, let alone acidity and bitter or savoury seasonings, the simple but critical flavour-heighteners that can take even average cooking from drab to delicious. Or as Makoto Ono, the talented chef behind Vancouver’s Pidgin restaurant, recently put it, “Seasoning is the biggest difference between home cooks and chefs.”
But the good news is that seasoning properly, though it takes some practice, isn’t all that hard. Once you learn a few tricks to getting salt, acidity and savoury in balance, you’ll be seasoning like a pro.
The king of seasonings: salt
Now that the HeartSmart set – that vast swath of Canadians who are terrified of their salt shakers – is staggering toward the fainting couches, a couple of precisions. Brown, like most good chefs, uses kosher salt and sea salt, which are typically far less sodium-dense by volume than so-called table salt. A teaspoonful of table salt (the recommended upper-limit daily intake for most adults, according to health professionals) contains 2,300 milligrams of sodium, roughly the same amount as a tablespoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt; that funnel-cake like dusting doesn’t amount to nearly as much as you would think. (Portion size is important, of course: If you plan to eat that beautifully seasoned, 12-ounce steak by yourself, all bets are off.)
And Canadians get just 5 per cent of their daily sodium intake from home cooking, according to Health Canada, while 77 per cent comes from processed and restaurant food. Translation: Lay off the tinned soups, processed deli meats, packaged pita pockets and Tim Hortons sandwiches – a single Tuscan Chicken Panini contains a whopping 1,590 mg of sodium – and save it for the good stuff.
First thing: Buy kosher or sea salt. Table salt falls through fingers too easily for accurate seasoning, and it dissolves so quickly that it’s all but impossible to judge quantity by sight. Many chefs swear by Diamond Crystal brand – its crystals are uniform in size. But whatever brand you use, pick one and stick with it. Keep it in a bowl or a salt pig (a covered bowl with an opening for your fingers), and season with your fingers, letting it fall from at least a foot above your food so that it coats ingredients evenly. Before long, you’ll be able to season largely by sight and feel – a good pinch or two for sautéeing green vegetables, a smaller one for sunny-side up eggs.
Timing is also crucial. “Every stage you go, add a bit of salt,” said Ravi Kanagarajah, the palate behind Toronto’s excellent Ravisoups chain. When Kanagarajah makes a soup, he adds a little to the onions as he starts to sweat them over low heat (the salt also draws out their moisture, which concentrates and sweetens the vegetables), then again when he adds more vegetables, and liquid, and again at the end. Season, taste, taste, season: You should be doing it at every stage. That way, every layer of flavour has punch and presence.
“If you wait until the very end, the soup only tastes like salt,” Kanagarajah said. (Just remember that liquids lose volume as they simmer, so take it easy; if a liquid reduces by half, it’ll taste twice as seasoned when it’s finished.)