Taste. Taste. Then Taste Again!
You’ve probably heard it said that, “If you’re not tasting, you’re not cooking!” I suppose that’s enough said. But I can’t help myself - I need to say a little more about the subject.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of lightly salting your food at each step in the cooking process. But I would add that tasting your food along the way is equally important. Tasting is particularly important when making sauces, soups, stews, vinaigrettes, gravies, etc.
Obviously, it’s pretty much impossible to taste meats during the cooking process. You wouldn’t tear off a piece of pot roast while it’s braising in the oven, or a corner of a hamburger while it’s on the grill. So it’s important to season meats well before the cooking begins, to ensure that their flavors develop properly during cooking. Sometimes the seasoning involves nothing more than salt and pepper. Other times, it might mean using a rub, marinade, or even a brine. In those cases, it’s important to taste your seasonings (if possible) before using, with the understanding that their flavors will become more fully developed during the cooking process.
Sauces, soups, and the like are a different story. Making sauces, etc., usually requires using a number of ingredients – all with differing degrees of freshness, and different types of flavor. Some may be saltier than others; some may be more acidic. Some sweeter, some more savory. The flavors of the ingredients themselves may take time to develop as you are working to create a flavor profile that is unique to the finished recipe. The only way to ensure that you are developing the flavor(s) you desire is to taste, test for seasonings throughout the process.
Let’s consider our recipe for Sloppy Joes as an example. I know it sounds pretty mundane, but it takes a bit of finesse to create the perfect Sloppy Joe.
Of course, we always start with the usual ingredients – ground beef, onions, salt, pepper, and ketchup (yes, we actually use ketchup!) We then add things like Worcestershire, mustard, brown sugar, and apple cider. Our goal is to create a perfect balance between the savory saltiness of the Worcestershire, the sweetness of the brown sugar, and the acidity of the mustard and vinegar. This takes time.
It takes about one hour for the flavors and balance we’re trying to achieve to develop. Throughout the process, we test the mixture 3 or 4 times to make sure the flavor is headed in the right direction. With each taste test, we adjust where necessary. If it’s too acidic, we add more salt or sugar, a little at a time so as not to “over adjust” for the imbalance. As the cooking continues, the sugar continues to caramelize, making the mixture too sweet or too thick. In this case, we test by adding more water first. We then taste and adjust further with either mustard or vinegar.
At MorningStar Kitchen we don’t like to brag about our own cooking. But we do like to evaluate the results. So we depend on our own taste tests to see how we’re doing. More importantly, we listen to the response we get from our guests. It’s not unusual for our guests to request third – and maybe even fourth – helpings of our Sloppy Joes. When that happens, we know we’ve achieved the kind of balanced flavors I’m talking about.