When a recipe directs you to “season,” right off you should read it as: “add salt and pepper to taste.” Unless the recipe is already very salty or very hot from other ingredients, these are absolute essentials. But here is what the cookbooks won’t tell you: The rest is up to you. The seasonings you pick should depend on the ingredients you are working with, the flavor theme you are going for and your personal tastes. Forget what the recipe says!
There are only a few basic ground rules you need to know about seasonings. The first is that the seasoning should be entirely to your taste. What’s overly spicy hot for you may taste on the mild side to me. That’s another reason why you can’t trust cookbook recipes, which I think often err on the side of blandness, and you have to taste, taste, taste while you’re cooking. I usually like to taste and add seasoning at each major step in the recipe.
You should also know that cookbook recipes often make seasonings more complex and mysterious and time-consuming than they really have to be. Do you really have time to be grinding whole spices in a mortar and pestle, or mixing together 1/8 tsp. of 18 different kinds of powders? That’s not cooking, that’s witchcraft.
One of my favorite time-saving secrets is to use seasoning mixes and dried herb mixes. That way, I don’t have to painstakingly measure out all those different kinds of herbs and spices; I just throw in the equivalent amount of seasoning mix. It’s not cheating — it’s smart. I get my spice and herb mixes from Penzey’s, where the quality is really good and there are a lot of varieties to choose from. I like to have several on hand at one time, so I can make my meal taste Spanish, Southwestern, Indian or Thai — whatever I’m in the mood for that night. The mixes also make great rubs for meats, flavor spikes for vinaigrettes and marinades, and bases for salad dressings and dips.
Still, there are a few seasonings you’re going to want to have on hand at all times. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Fats: butter, olive oil, peanut oil and vegetable oil
We’re all so fat conscious these days, but fats are an absolute necessity for bringing out the essential flavors in foods. Each recipe will start with some fat. To maintain that essential balance between good health and good taste, I figure on ½ tbsp. or less of fat per person per dish, less if I’m using nonstick and cooking over a high heat (as in stir-frying). Also, avoid trans-fats; there’s nothing wrong with good, old-fashioned butter.
- Aromatics: onions (including shallots, scallions, leeks and all the various colors), garlic, bell pepper, chiles, carrots, celery, mushrooms, ginger
Pretty much every cooked recipe is going to start with sauteing some aromatics in some fat. They’re called aromatics for a reason: they add aroma to a dish. They are the building blocks of flavor. You can’t go wrong with onion and garlic, no matter what you’re cooking. Your mileage may vary but generally, you’ll want to figure on ¼ of a small onion, ½ shallot or 1 clove garlic per person. Beyond that, you can vary the aromatics to vary the style of the dish. Keep some of each in your fridge and throw in what seems right to you. As as general guide, use ½ pepper, ¼ carrot or celery stick, ½ tbsp. ginger and/or ¼ lb. mushrooms, all minced, per person.
Chef’s tip: Dried chiles and mushrooms keep forever and are always on hand for enhancing dishes. To rehydrate, just soak them in hot water for 10-15 minutes. The soaking liquid makes a terrific flavor enhancer, as well.
- Seasoning and dried herb mixes: start with 1 tsp. per person and add to taste
- Fresh herbs: mince and throw in 1 tbsp. per person at the end of cooking (otherwise, they’ll lose their flavor)
- Lemon and limes: Use 1 tbsp. (½ fruit) juice and 1 tsp. zest per person; also best added at the end of cooking
- Vinegars: Have a full selection on hand, including balsamic, red wine, white wine and sherry; these are stronger than citrus juices so start with 1 tsp. per person
- Mustard: use 1 tsp. per person and buy lots of flavors
- Soy sauce, fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce: All essentials; generally use around ½ tbsp. or less per person
- Flavored oils (such as chile oil, sesame oil, etc.): use 1 tsp. per person
- Prepared sauces (such as barbecue sauce, hoisin sauce, plum sauce, black bean sauce, mayonnaise and horseradish): Use 1 tbsp. or less per person
- Spice pastes (such as anchovy paste, chile paste, curry paste and sun-dried tomato paste): These are great timesavers; figure on 1 tsp. per person
- Hot sauces: 1-2 dashes per person is usually sufficient, but again, tastes vary widely — pass more at the table