Why do so many recipes fail to specify the amount of salt? Why do recipes say to season with salt when you can’t know if you’re adding the right amount? Why do recipes say to add salt at the wrong time?
As you know, I have opinions on recipe writing, and specifying salt is no exception. Here’s my take on where many recipes go wrong, and how to fix them:
1. Adding “to taste” to salt in the ingredients list. The ingredients list comes before the dish is assembled, and therefore it’s pointless to tell people to add salt to taste. They haven’t made anything yet.
2. Not specifying the amount of salt. Sometimes I just see “salt” listed as an ingredient, with no amount. The problem is that you know how your food should taste. Reader’s don’t.
You might argue that people can add as much or as little salt as they like, so there’s no reason to specify. Not true. Often the amount of salt will make or break a dish.
You also might argue that some people are watching their salt. If people are doing so for health reasons, they’ll use less. If people like salty food, they’ll use more. Give them a starting point.
3. Asking readers to season to taste at the wrong time. Typically, the wrong time is when the dish is unfinished. This applies to any dish that cooks for a while, such as sauces and soups; or dishes that chill so flavors can meld. When you have told readers to salt “to taste” in the middle of cooking, they won’t know how much salt to add. Flavors will change. With soup, for example, the liquid reduces and salt will intensify the flavor. With chilling, foods taste less salty.
I’m not saying not to salt during the cooking process. Tell readers the amount. And don’t tell them to salt “to taste” at the wrong time. Here’s an example:
“Scoop out the squash and place in a blender. Add the milk, butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the crumbled bacon.”
Wrong! Bacon is salty. Salting the mash “to taste” before adding the bacon could ruin the dish.
So when is the right time to season to taste? Right before eating it, most of the time. Before that, you’re going to have to tell them an amount.
4. Telling people to taste raw food. I often see recipes that say to add salt “to taste” when making a marinade. Most people don’t want to taste a marinade. They also have no idea how salty it should be.
That’s why they’ve come to you. You are the expert. Just as you tell them how much garlic or miso or oregano, tell them how much salt.
With meatballs, no one wants to taste raw meat either, so it is common to fry up a little bit and then taste to see if seasonings need to be adjusted. Give a specific amount of salt to add up front, and then if people want more, they can adjust it.
5. Not knowing the difference between seasoning and sprinkling. Don’t tell people to season something raw before it goes into the oven. Seasoning implies tasting, and no one is going to take a bite out of a raw winter squash to see if they’ve salted it enough. Tell readers to sprinkle salt over the acorn squash.
Okay, that’s my rant. Let the discussion begin. Am I on target, nuts, or only partially correct? You tell me.
And you might want to read this piece, from the Washington Post, ‘Salt to taste,” taken with a grain of regret (Possible paywall).
(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)