Does it drive you crazy when recipes say you should season with salt and pepper to taste? I get it! This can sometimes be confusing and downright frustrating. Let’s take a closer look at what this actually means, and how to work with it.
I recently received a great question from a reader about what to do when a recipe says “add salt and pepper to taste.”
Hi Jen, My biggest question about cooking from scratch is when a recipe says, “salt and pepper to taste.” I don’t know. I can’t taste the raw beef or chicken.
This is an interesting topic, one that people have varying opinions on. Our palates vary and evolve over time, which is why one person might find a cake perfect while someone else finds it cloyingly sweet. Someone who has to cut back on or completely eliminate salt from their diet might suddenly find foods they used to enjoy too salty. Also, the type of salt being used in the recipe can make a slight difference. This is why it’s so helpful to learn how to season to your own personal preferences.
So, while I know how frustrating this can be, especially for novice cooks, it’s hard for recipe creators to judge what others will find balanced. I especially understand why it’s annoying on recipes using raw meat, so I personally try not to do that, except for in the case of seasoning meat with salt and pepper before searing it. Again, this is something that will definitely vary by preference. More on that below.
Some of my older recipes are definitely guilty of stating “season to taste” without any additional guidance. I’ve come up with a happy medium on newer recipes. I still often write “salt and pepper to taste,” but I include a note like “I used 1 teaspoon salt & 1/2 teaspoon pepper.” Or “1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste).” This way I’m offering guidance while leaving room for people to adjust based on personal preference.
Tip: If a recipe tastes like it’s missing something, the two most likely culprits are salt and acidity.
A pinch of salt or a squeeze of lemon juice will often correct the issue. So at the end of the day, it’s incredibly useful to taste things, figure out what’s missing, and season to taste. This is a great way to refine your palate, and with time you’ll learn to automatically know exactly how much salt and pepper a recipe needs based on your preferences.
Learn How to Season to Taste
So how exactly does one practice seasoning to taste?
1.) Taste Before Adding Seasoning
I always taste something (that’s cooked) before adding seasoning. A recipe might already include salty ingredients like soy sauce or feta cheese. There might already be a seasoning blend in the ingredients that includes salt and/or pepper. For example, many of my seafood recipes include Old Bay (like my hot crab dip and crab cakes), which is pretty salty on its own.
2.) Remember That It’s Easier to Add Than Subtract
One of my favorite kitchen tips is, “It’s always easier to add than subtract.” Once you add too much salt, it can take a lot of time to balance the flavors again. So start small. If you’re preparing a soup or stew, try adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Taste; add more seasoning if needed.
If you are seasoning vegetables, sprinkle a small amount evenly on top, lifting your hand 12 inches or so away from the dish so it disperses evenly instead of dropping all in one spot. Taste the food. Repeat if necessary. That’s it!
3). Pay Attention To Leftovers
Don’t be afraid to re-season the dish later. I find that some soups always need a bit more salt and pepper the next day when I’m reheating them.
4.) Learn to Season Raw Meat
I always season raw meat before searing it. The salt helps create a nice, flavorful crust, especially on steak. Black pepper always enhances the flavor of the meat, in my opinion. You’re going to need to experiment to figure out how much seasoning you enjoy on the crust, even if it means eating a few pieces of steaks or chicken that are less than perfect along the way. Remember my second tip “It’s easier to add than subtract.”
Stir together some salt and pepper in a small bowl (maybe 1 teaspoon of salt + 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, though the amount will depend on the size/quantity of meat). Sprinkle the blend evenly on both sides of the meat. After cooking the meat, decide whether you like how it tastes. If it’s under-seasoned, add a bit more. If the seasoning is too strong, try scraping some off with a knife.
Emma Christensen also adds this useful tip over at The Kitchn:
Try to ignore the instinct to taste for saltiness — you don’t actually want the dish to taste salty — and ask yourself how all the other flavors are coming through. “Does this soup still taste muddy or are the flavors bright? Can I taste the sweetness from the squash? Do the parsnips still taste bitter?”
Do you have any additional tips on how to season a recipe to taste? I’d love to read them in the comments section!