Season Like a Chef

Posted February 9, 2017

Through 30+ years in the professional kitchen, I’ve heard the same question again and again: “Why doesn’t my [fill in the blank] taste like the one from the restaurant?” Sometimes it’s “Why doesn’t my chicken come out as juicy, with crisp skin?” Other times it’s “My guacamole never tastes as avocado-y as the handmade from the Mexican place.” It can, and it will. The secret lies in the approach to the recipe.

Chefs’ seasoning theory considers “flavor profiles” when approaching a dish. We start by layering distinct sets of aromatic base ingredients before main flavoring ingredients, then finish with ingredients that amplify the persona we wish to express.

A single recipe, vegetable soup for instance, will project Mediterranean, Thai, North African, or South American personality when seasoned with the precise spice profile of the precise region. European aromatics are “Mirepoix” of celery, carrots and onion. Hone that sweet, vegetal base with herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme for French, Spanish, Greek, or Italian essence. Thai aromatics start with the “Thai holy trinity” of galangal (a ginger-like rhizome), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass. Thai profiles then evolve by using curry pastes of shallots, coriander, anise, and fermented condiments.

Most important of all is mastery of salt. It reveals flavors that the palate can’t perceive in its absence. More than just the amount used, it’s the point at which it’s applied, and how it is distributed that make the difference between pedestrian and profound. Chefs season, for example, by holding the salt between two fingers at a great height above the item they’re seasoning. By showering the food this way, there’s no patchwork of overly salty and underseasoned spots that can ruin the diner’s experience.

Exposure to different kinds of salt – some for cooking and others for finishing – adds sophistication and nuance. Inclusion or exclusion of salt in marinades can determine the result of a recipe. Why do chefs love kosher salt so much? Why is baking so different from cooking? These questions are at the root of seasoning theory.

Putting theory into practice reveals the answers. Using very basic recipes like omelets, risotto, and baked chicken as controls, NGI’s Basic Cooking Techniques: 2-Week Intensive course, as well as the How to Season like a Chef class, explore the ways that pro chefs coax the deepest, fullest flavor from foods. By executing these dishes with variations such as dry rub, brine, wine reduction, and contrasting condiments, students gain insight into the flavor possibilities of their own cooking repertoires.

About the Author:
Jay Weinstein is a New York food writer, editor, culinary instructor, and cookbook author, his food articles and recipes have been featured in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Newsday, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, and numerous other publications. Jay’s most recent book, The Ethical Gourmet (Random House/Broadway Books), focuses on ecologically sustainable fine foods. He is also author of The Everything Vegetarian Cookbook (Adams), and A Cup of Comfort Cookbook (Adams). He is a graduate of  the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of  some top restaurant kitchens, including New York’s Le Bernardin and Orso, and Boston’s Jasper’s and The Four Seasons Hotel.  jayweinstein.com