In my “What I Learned in Culinary School” series, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks that I learned from two years of working with some of the country’s best chefs. This will include big things like learning to work efficiently, and small things like how to cook bacon perfectly. All of them will be applicable to your home kitchen, making you a faster, better, and more confident cook.
In one of the final classes of my culinary school curriculum, we learned how to work the various stations in our student-run kitchen. Groups of three students would take their turns on the sauté, grill, and salad stations.
But one station was tucked away in the corner, with little contact to the outside world. The Soup Station. While other groups scurried to prep the 15 – 20 items needed for that day’s dish, this station had only one task: make a great pot of soup. Why did it take four hours for three students to make one pot of soup? Because it wasn’t about the soup. It was about the seasoning.
There’s a myth that the reason restaurant food tastes so good is because it’s so well salted. But there are many ways to season food other than just with salt. In fact, my chef instructors taught us that salt isn’t always the first thing to reach for. That’s great news for anyone looking for a way to make healthy dishes taste great without going overboard on sodium. Since hearty soups make for great food resolution eating, I thought I’d share these tips.
Let’s get started. Taste your almost-finished dish. Is it perfect? If so, you really lucked out. That never happens for me.
If you get the feeling that “something is missing,” start with spice. If your dish already includes some sort of spice (like cayenne, black or white pepper, paprika, etc.), it’s natural to add an extra dash of that to try to perk things up. Or, now might be the time to add some pepper for the first time, if it’s appropriate for the flavors of your meal. Take it slow, and add just a little bit at a time until you can taste a difference. You don’t want to make your dish spicy, you just want to jazz up the flavor a little bit. Sometimes, an extra dash is all you need.
If you’ve added a few more sprinkles of spice, and you’re still not totally loving it, the next step is salt. Salt is known as a flavorant – something that enhances the flavor of food, rather than contributing its own. Because salt is one of the five primary tastes the human tongue can detect, a dish without any trace of salt will almost always seem flat. The coarse texture of kosher salt makes it a cook’s best friend – it’s easy to grab a pinch to stir into your dish.
After you’ve gradually added a few pinches of salt, make sure you have a drink of water to cleanse your palate, and then re-taste. Would you describe your dish as bright and well-rounded? Does one bite make you want to keep eating ten more bites? If the answer is no, you still have work to do.
The final line of defense against a bland dinner is acid. Let’s start with wine, a mild acid. Because I don’t always want to open a whole bottle of wine for just a splash, I like to keep those little one-serving bottles of wine on hand – both dry red and dry white varieties. Think about the dish you’re making, and what type of wine you would like to drink with it – that’s the type of wine you’ll want to season with. For chicken noodle soup, I like to add a splash of white wine. Beef and barley soup would be complemented by red wine.
If you don’t keep wine on hand, or you added it and it didn’t quite cut it, move on to vinegar. Here too, I like to reach for red wine and white wine varieties of vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is also very versatile. A little bit of vinegar goes a long way, so add a teaspoon of vinegar at a time, and taste after each spoonful. You should be able to taste your dish perking right up. The flavors of each ingredient will start to pop, and the brightness will make your dish have that “craveable” nature every cook strives for.
If you’ve tried spice, salt, wine and vinegar, and your dish STILL tastes dull, that’s a rough day in the kitchen. Don’t despair – yet. Grab a lemon (or a lime, if the flavor works with your meal). Squeeze some juice into your dish and cross your fingers. I’m a firm believer that a little lemon juice can improve ANY dish. After all this hard work, you should be looking at a pretty great pot of soup now.
I know this process sounds like it takes about an hour. I promise it doesn’t. When you’re first getting started learning about seasoning, it can take about ten minutes at the end of your cooking time to make adjustments and get everything tasting great. But once you learn the basics, these rules become second nature, and can be done in less than a minute.
Always keep your seasonings nearby. That’s the sign of a true home chef.
For more tips and tricks from my school days, be sure to check out my culinary school archive.