Food & Drink The difference between a half-decent cook and a hopeless...

The difference between a half-decent cook and a hopeless one? Seasoning


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A relative served a stew for lunch the other day. It is a family classic, in the sense that it is one of a handful of dishes they can make, in the sense that a handful can be three.Â

‘Mmm,’ we said. ‘Mmm, thanks.’Â

‘Bon appetit,’ they said. ‘And by the way, I haven’t seasoned it, so you may want to do that.’ Thank you, yes, we probably will.Â

Heading home for Christmas, millions of Britons will be being cooked for by people they do not often see, who have unfamiliar culinary habits.Â

Guests are meant to be grateful, but they will be confronted by meat cooked too little or, more likely, too long. There will be vegetables with unexpected spices or flavours. Carrots with orange and that sort of thing.Â

Above all, they will meet with shocking differences in the level and quality of seasoning.Â

More than any technique, seasoning – and salt especially – signals the difference between a half-decent home cook and a hopeless one. Anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen knows what’s up, but in recipe books salt and pepper are invariably ‘to taste’. The boldest and most honest cooks will put ‘generously’ – in Stanley Tucci’s recent video about how to make a basic tomato and basil sauce, he is pleasingly liberal.Â

For the less confident, the discretionary waiver is an invitation to use a measly token pinch. These will be cooks who do not dip a spoon or a finger. A reasonably salted meal is proof that whoever made it has paid some thought to how it tastes. Salt and pepper are not a niche option for the discerning, like chilli or MSG.

As far as I can tell, the reticence is in part a generational thing. Baby boomers are the most fearful, perhaps because they grew up in the 1970s amid reports that a pinch of salt would cause instant hypertension. In my experience they tend to be the same people who thought margarine was a good idea. Thankfully, honest salt and butter are back in favour. The new baddie is ultra-processed foods. But a residual wariness remains.

I can understand holding back on the stuff if you happen to be cooking for people with specific conditions, whose hearts are on a hair trigger and for whom an extra dash of Maldon might prove fatal. Mercifully, for most of us this is less of a health risk than of being bored to death by a bland meal. I preferred the old ways, where adding salt and pepper before having tried the dish would be considered bad manners. The need for it would be a mark of failure on the part of the cook.Â

If you are hosting this Christmas, don’t be shy. Season’s greetings, greet the seasoning.Â


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