Make a Recipe Just the Way You Like: 10 Tips
Salt and pepper, to taste.
1/2 tsp. chili flakes, more or less, to taste.
1/4 to 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, to taste.
Recipes seem to be littered with unhelpful directives about “to taste.” For those of us who aren’t exactly Julia Child in the kitchen, coming across one of them can be annoying, maybe even mildly anxiety-provoking. “Now what do I do?” might be your response when a recipe says “add lemon juice, to taste”
These vague directives may seem like a cop out for lazy recipe writers, but they actually have a good purpose. When you see “to taste” in a recipe, it’s shorthand for “Caution! Strong-tasting ingredient ahead. Handle with care.”
I actually worry more about recipes without a warning system. Just yesterday, I madea peanut sauce recipe that called for 2 1/2 tablespoons of red chili paste. That amount would have burned a small crater in my mouth! I never use more than 1/8 a teaspoon. Made me wonder how many dishes get tossed in the garbage because an unsuspecting chef wasn’t warned that an ingredient had dangerous potential.
Take advantage of a “to taste” instruction to make a dish just the way you like—which happens to be one of the best aspects of cooking for yourself.
It’s easy to focus on the work involved in cooking, and while there’s no question that eating out is a lot easier, how often do you end up with a dish that doesn’t quite do it for you? At the end of the meal, your taste buds feel shortchanged. They crave a meal that wasn’t quite so bland, or so burningly hot, or so salty, or so . . . you fill in the blank.
While it might involve a little more effort, cooking for yourself has the distinct advantage of producing meals that taste just right for you. Which is where the “to taste” business comes in. There’s just one way to create a dish that makes your taste buds happy: by tasting and adjusting, then tasting and adjusting again.
- Tools of the Trade To begin with, thwart the temptation to taste out of the pan. Pull out a tasting spoon and plate and keep them handy.
- Start Small If a recipe gives a range of measurements, start with the smaller amount. You can always add more, but not the reverse.
- Taste, Taste, Taste After adding the minimum amount of a flavoring, stir it in completely and allow the flavors to meld a minute or two before tasting.
- Cool It I am better able to taste flavors when a dish is warm rather than hot. So I always let my tasting portion cool off before trying.
- Unfamiliar Flavoring? Sprinkle just a little bit over a couple spoonfuls on your tasting plate. Mix in and taste before deciding how much to add. If you’re ambivalent, keep the flavoring to a minimum and give your taste buds time to adapt to the new flavor. Reject it outright only if completely distasteful; sometimes the best flavors are ones that grow on us over time.
- Portion Control Don’t ruin your appetite: Tiny tastes are enough to judge flavor. And call in the spouse and/or children to help. Not only do they get invested in the meal, the dish can be made to meet their tastes as well.
- Balance When tasting, seek balance. The best dishes achieve that state where no ingredient predominates, but each enhances the other in a “just right” symphony. So don’t be looking for a major burst of one particular flavor, just a pleasing, overall taste.
- No Measurement Given Salt and pepper frequently come with no guidelines other than taste. That’s because there is such a wide variance in tastes and needs when it comes to these two flavorings. Some people barely salt their food and might be tempted to omit salt completely. However, salt often brings out the other flavors in a dish, so try at least 1/4 teaspoon in a dish for four, unless medical reasons require otherwise. Heavy salters may want to scale back slightly (to maybe 1/2 teaspoon in a dish for four) so other flavors have a chance to present themselves.
- Salt and Pepper Speaking of salt and pepper, there may be other ingredients in a recipe that add saltiness or heat, like Parmesan cheese or chili powder. Adjust your usual salt and pepper amounts accordingly.
- Powerful Flavors Generally speaking, the more powerful its flavor the more gingerly an ingredient should be handled. A few examples of “powerful flavors:”
- anything having “chili, “hot” or “pepper” in the name
- ginger and garlic (especially when uncooked)
- fresh rosemary and sage
- strong cheeses like blue cheese and goat cheeses
- spicy mustard
While these flavorings deserve special consideration, just about any of the herbs and spices, when overdone, can make a dish unbearable.
Because our tastes are so individual, learning to add ingredients “to taste” is a very individual process. The best strategy: always go slowly. This can be tedious, especially when you’re in a hurry to get a meal on the table. But after two or three months, expect to begin developing a feel for your tastes. The rewards are magnificent: Having food exactly your way.
Tomorrow’s Post Measurement guidelines for some of the more common “to taste” ingredients.
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