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Seasoning Tips for Improving Flavor

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2011

Reliable recipes and top-quality equipment will get you far, but knowing how to get the most from your seasoning can make a big difference.

1. Drop (salt for) acid

In addition to grabbing the saltshaker to boost flavor in soups, stews, and sauces, try a drop of lemon juice or vinegar. Like salt, acid competes with bitter flavor compounds, reducing our perception of them as they “brighten” other flavors. Just a dash—1/8 teaspoon—can go a long way.

2. Use coarse salt when seasoning meat

Use kosher salt—rather than table salt—when seasoning meat. Its larger grains distribute more easily and cling well to the meat’s surface. When a recipe calls for seasoning meat “to taste,” we suggest using about 1/8 teaspoon of kosher salt per portion.

3. Pep up—or tone down—your pepper

When exactly you apply black pepper to meat—before or after searing—will affect the strength of its bite. If you want assertive pepper flavor, season meat after searing; keeping the pepper away from heat will preserve its volatile compounds. Alternatively, seasoning before cooking will tame pepper’s punch.

4. Season cold foods aggressively

Chilling foods dulls their flavors and aromas, so it’s important to compensate by seasoning generously—but judiciously. To keep from overdoing it, season with a normal amount of salt before chilling and then taste and add more salt as desired just before serving.

5. Incorporate fresh herbs at the right time

Add hearty herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, and marjoram to dishes early on in the cooking process; this way, they release maximum flavor while ensuring that their texture will be less intrusive. Save delicate herbs like parsley, cilantro, tarragon, chives, and basil for the last minute, lest they lose their fresh flavor and bright color.

6. Add a little umami

Common pantry staples like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and anchovies contain high levels of glutamates that can give a savory umami boost to a dish. Try mixing a teaspoon or two of soy sauce into chili or adding a couple of finely minced anchovies to a chicken braise.

7. Make adjustments when seasonings go awry

If you’ve added too much salt, sugar, or spice to a dish, the damage is usually done. In mild cases, however, the overpowering ingredient can sometimes be masked by the addition of another from the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. Consult the following tips for ideas. And remember to account for the reduction of liquids when seasoning a dish—a perfectly seasoned stew will likely taste too salty after several hours of simmering. Your best bet is to season with a light hand during the cooking process and then adjust the seasoning just before serving.

  • If your food is too salty, add an acid or sweetener such as vinegar; lemon or lime juice; canned, unsalted tomatoes; sugar, honey, or maple syrup.
  • If your food is too sweet, add an acid or seasonings such as vinegar or citrus juice; chopped fresh herb; dash of cayenne; or, for sweet dishes, a bit of liqueur or espresso powder
  • If your food is too spicy or acidic, add a fat or sweetener such as butter, cream, sour cream, cheese, or olive oil; sugar, honey, or maple syrup

8. Add a finishing touch

Even the most perfectly cooked soup, stew, or pasta dish can benefit from a last-minute burst of flavor. One of our favorite ways to liven up rich lasagnas or hearty braises is to sprinkle them with the classic Mediterranean garnish known as gremolata. This mixture features minced fresh garlic, citrus zest, and fresh herbs such as parsley or basil. Soups, pasta, fish, and just about any cut of meat will benefit from a dollop of herb butter made from blending finely minced herbs, garlic, and often shallot into softened butter.