October 3, 2021

Always Be Tasting

This is the most important thing to do when cooking. And most recipes don’t even mention it.

This is the most important thing to do when cooking. And most recipes don’t even mention it.

Taste your food.

Then do the next thing. And taste again. In fact…Always. Be. Tasting. (aka A B T 😉)

Whether it was from your basketball coach, comments on your college essay, or your yearly review at work, feedback is crucial to improving. And when you taste your food throughout the cooking process, you’re getting feedback.

It’s something I used to rarely do when cooking. And to be honest, it’s something I can still do more. So don’t be like me. Taste your food, at every step. No matter what…Okay, maybe not if you’re dealing with raw chicken or something. 🤢 Our legal team made me put that disclaimer in here... Alright, you caught me. I don’t have a legal team.

Taste Your Food. Even When Following a Recipe.

I’m learning to be less dependent on recipes and then share those insights with all of you. But that doesn’t mean recipes are bad. They’re a great way to learn from other cooks. They provide inspiration and guidelines when you’ve never made something before.

But they’re not a guarantee.

Cooking is an art because there are so many variables at play. You can never exactly replicate the experience of whoever made the recipe. Ovens, ingredients, elevation, humidity, taste buds, and so much more will make your experience cooking different than theirs.

Let’s take salt for example. There are numerous varieties, all with different levels of saltiness. Even brands with the same type of salt taste different. (Learn how types of salt differ.) So do you know what type of salt the recipe developer used? Is it saltier or less salty than the one you use? 🤷‍♂️ It makes an impact.

Then there is produce. Your variety of apples may be slightly different than theirs. Their beets may have been picked early in the season while yours were picked late. Your tomatoes may be from the farmer’s market and theirs from the grocery store. Heck, even carrots grown in the same place can taste different year to year.

Then there is equipment. The recipe says 30 minutes. But maybe their pan cooks faster than yours. The only way to know if your caramelized onions are caramelized enough is to taste them.

Plus, when you taste your food before serving it, you have the chance to tailor it to your own palate. It’s the benefit of being the cook! Every meal is personalized to you. 👩‍🍳

As Massimo Bottura says, “Follow your palate!”

Okay, Now How Do You Taste?

I know what you’re saying, “Okay, Luciano, I know how to taste something. Do you really need to explain this?” Yes. In fact, I do.

Here’s why. I was watching Criminal Minds the other day with my wife. And there was a scene of a woman cooking in the kitchen—obviously right before a serial killer attacked. She took the lid off of the pot, dabbed her wooden spoon in the sauce, and kissed her lips against it. I immediately smirked. 😏

That is not how you taste your food.

There’s no way she had any idea what that sauce tasted like. She probably tasted more wood than sauce.

When you taste, you need to REALLY taste.

Get a full spoon or forkful. Then blow on it to cool it off—it’s harder to distinguish flavors when it’s piping hot. Next, put it in your mouth, and taste it slowly. Focus on it. This is the close-your-eyes kind of tasting. You really want to get a feel for it.

Then try a second bite. Why? Sometimes your palate needs time to adjust to the flavors.

There you go! That’s how you properly taste your food when cooking. 🙌

Taste & Adjust

Being able to taste and then adjust while you cook is one of those things that is easy to do but takes practice to master. I’m breaking it down into 3 levels.

Level 1

The best and simplest time to taste is right before it’s done. It’s the easiest point to make adjustments, even if you’re a brand new cook. Anyone can do it well!

As you’re about to take your fried rice out of the pan, take a bite, or two. And ask yourself, what does it need?

  • Does it taste bland? Salt helps. In this case probably more soy sauce.
  • Does it feel thin in your mouth? Try a drizzle of toasted sesame oil to add flavor and body.
  • Is it too sweet? The acidity from a squeeze of lime or a dash of rice wine vinegar will balance the flavor.
  • Is the flavor a bit one-noted or flat? Grind up some Sichuan peppercorns to add some tingly spice. Or add some sriracha!
  • Is it too smooth? It may need textural contrast. Diced scallions could do it. Or pickled veggies.

Just keep this in mind.

When adjusting for flavor, do it a little at a time. Then taste again. You can always add more. But you can’t take it away.

Level 2

But you shouldn’t only taste a completed dish right before serving. You should be tasting each component throughout the cooking process. This gives you more opportunities to make adjustments.

You have to think about how the dish will come together and the role each component plays.

Let’s take a salad. You make your vinaigrette and then taste it. Ahh, you notice it needs a little bit more salt. Then you’re toasting walnuts. Try those as they cook. Are they toasty enough? No? Give them a couple more minutes. Then there is the cheese. Are you going to add Parmigiano Reggiano? Well, that is a salty cheese. Go back and taste your vinaigrette. You want to make sure it isn’t overly salty then. Next, try the kale you’re using. Is it pretty bitter today? Try bumping up the acidity in your vinaigrette then to balance it out. But, wait! You’re going to add sliced apples. And after trying those, you realize they’re pretty acidic. So maybe your vinaigrette doesn’t need that extra acid. Lastly, you combine everything and taste the finished product. Well, it does need that extra splash of vinegar after all. 😄

Level 3

It’s more challenging to know what a tomato sauce will taste like at the end when it still needs to simmer for an hour.

Knowing how flavors change as you cook is something that you figure out with experience.

“Tasting and smelling as you cook are ways to gather input to inform and edit where you are in the cooking process, and to assess the relationships between the different components.”The Art of Flavor

As you taste frequently throughout the cooking process, you’ll get better at it. You’ll be able to predict how the flavor will change over time. Maybe that tomato sauce does need more salt and spices. But maybe it just needs more time to simmer. It’s a learned skill.

But there are a few “principles” to keep in mind:

  • Aromatic flavors mellow as they cook—like garlic, onions, spices, and herbs
  • “Liquids” intensify as they cook because water evaporates over time—like tomato sauces, refried beans, and soups
  • Browning changes flavor completely—like browned butter, charred zucchini, and a seared steak.

Lastly, remember this. Even if you’re not a skilled taster, always be tasting. It’s only by tasting more often that you get better at it. You’ll learn how the flavor changes as you cook.

So always be tasting my friends.

Where I learned this: Salt Fat Acid Heat, the Art of Flavor, and watching lots of professional chefs cook on MasterClass.