When blanching vegetables such as green beans or Brussels sprouts, or boiling pasta, season the water instead of the ingredient, and season it heavily – up to 1/3 of a cup of iodized salt per four litres.
With meats, salt the way Brown does: aggressively. Even then, you may need more. If you slice a dense piece of meat such as flank steak or duck breast before serving, taste a piece. Is it flavourful enough, or bland on the inside where the salt couldn’t reach? Like many good chefs,Ono typically finishes sliced meats and many vegetables with a very light dusting of flaky Maldon sea salt for texture and punch.
And remember: Our seasoning preferences aren’t hardwired at equal, predictable levels. They are learned, through eating. Trust your palate.
The importance of acidity
Next to salt, acidity is easily the most important seasoning: It cuts through richness and sweetness, brightens otherwise dull ingredients and underscores flavour by refreshing your palate. Acidity also happens to reduce the amount of salt needed to make a dish pop.
If a meat or pasta dish tastes cloying, vegetables uninteresting, or dessert too sickly sweet, it’s a good bet a punch of acid can fix it.
A squeeze of lemon or lime can transform a lentil soup, say, or braised pork tacos, and a last-minute Microplane grating of Meyer lemon zest brings pancakes with maple syrup alive.
Brown puts a squeeze of lemon in almost everything just before he serves it. Few things can improve a gravy like a splash of red wine vinegar, he said. Ono makes sure there are always acidic elements on meat plates, whether pickled vegetables, mustard seeds or a citrus-focused sauce. Claudio Aprile, of Toronto’s Origin restaurants, loves using Asian citrus like calamansi limes or yuzu, depending on what he’s cooking, he said; he often pairs aromatic yuzu with raw fish.
The options are almost limitless: sumac powder, tart berries, green mangoes, tamarind and even brightly flavoured herbs such as shiso are all great sources of acidity. The key is knowing what kind to use and how much. Zest typically has a more pronounced flavour, while in small quantities juice integrates better with a dish. Most of the time, acidity should be a part of the substructure only, a supporting actor to make the main ingredients pop.
Another good rule: Remember the cuisine you’re working in. Lime pairs naturally with Mexican food, where lemon can be all elbows; tarragon vinegar works with many French dishes, and tamarind with Indian. For the most part, acidity is best added right at the end of cooking.
The bedrock of flavour
Savoury seasonings give dishes what can only be described as lip-smacking flavour: meaty, cravings-inducing umami depth.
Parmesan cheese is a key source of umami: When you drop a nub of Parmesan rind into simmering chicken soup, or grate Parmesan over spaghetti Bolognese, you’re amping up the dish’s savoriness. Bacon is another major source. It’s no wonder so many hamburgers now feature lashings of bacon jam. (There’s even a burger chain in California called Umami Burger. Its burgers come stacked with roasted tomato slices, white soy aioli, Parmesan crisps and shiitake mushrooms, all major umami sources.)
Yet savoury is often the bedrock of a dish, rather than a last-minute seasoning: Ramen broth, for instance, is often built up from simmering Japanese fish flakes, shiitake mushrooms and dried seaweed, all three of them major umami ingredients. And umami doesn’t belong in everything, Brown said. A little bit can go a long way. Remember, too, that umami ingredients are often naturally salty.
The best place to start is with common, user-friendly umami boosters such as miso, Parmesan, tomato paste (try adding some to caramelizing onions) and Thai fish sauce, or simply to toss a handful of shredded Japanese nori on a soup.
The power of umami
Whip miso paste into mayonnaise as a simple condiment (it’s brilliant with French fries), or whisk it with melted butter, mirin and sake to glaze salmon or trout.
Many of Asia’s greatest hot-sour-savoury-salty-sweet dishes are built on fish sauce. Heat some sesame oil to smoking in a wok or sautée pan, add blanched green beans, some chopped garlic, a squirt of sambal oelek chili paste, a couple dashes of Thai fish sauce and soy. Finish with a squeeze of lime.
Sprinkle creamy scrambled eggs with a dusting of sumac, the hauntingly citrus-like Middle Eastern spice.
Grate Meyer lemon zest over cottage-cheese pancakes with maple syrup.
Melt dark, slightly bitter chocolate onto a slice of grilled French bread, sprinkle with flaky sea salt.