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"Do I really need to season food in stages?"
Chefs and cooks tell me that I should be seasoning my food in stages as I go, but what's the difference between doing that and just adding salt at the table with a salt shaker?
Let's start with what we know. For certain types of foods—specifically meats—I know that salting beforehand is essential to the final flavor of the dish. Salting the exterior of meat before roasting or searing not only allows that salt time to dissolve and get absorbed into the crust, but with enough time it can actually affect the way meat retains moisture through a process known as dry brining.
While adding salt at the table can produce a nice effect for certain dishes—particularly when it's large crunchy flakes or crystals of sea salt that pop in your mouth—it's not a substitute for salt that has been properly dissolved into the meat or sauce.
Adding salt to your bean cooking water not only makes the beans taste better, but it also helps them cook more evenly. Other porous, starchy foods like potatoes and pasta can absorb salt as they're cooking. We've explored this a few times when working on a potato salad recipe and when we tested how salty pasta water should be. But do these effects come into play in more complex dishes?
And what about things like soups, stews, and other moist preparations that mostly involve non-starchy vegetables? Does salting them during the process make any noticeable difference in the end product?
There are a few ways I can think of that salting in stages could potentially affect the flavor of the end result. I know that salts can draw out liquids from raw vegetables—a fact that I use regularly to intensify the flavor of tomatoes and other vegetables in raw soups or chopped salads. Perhaps this effect (called osmosis) can also affect the way flavors develop during cooking by putting compounds in contact with each other and with the hot pan earlier in the process?
To test this, I first needed a good recipe—one that cooks in several stages. My Hearty Escarole and Parmesan Soup, which starts by sautéing a basic mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery, then adding rosemary and garlic, followed by escarole, and finally tomato paste, barley, and broth would do nicely.
I made two batches side by side. For the first batch, I added small amounts of salt at each step of the way. For the second, I made the soup start-to-finish, stirring in all the salt at the very end just before serving. In both cases, the total amount of salt added to the soup was identical.
The process of cooking seemed pretty much identical. Despite anecdotal reports I've heard from chefs and home cooks that salting during cooking can draw out liquids from vegetables, making them sweat better, I noticed no difference in the two pots I had cooking side-by-side, nor did I personally taste a difference in the finished soups.
I also pulled off spoonfuls of hot soup and brought them over to my wife, Adri, who was occupied with managing our health insurance or perhaps developing the complex math behind a new data encryption scheme or some other such trivial task. This in itself is not abnormal—I often wake her up in the middle of the night to say, Adri, Adri, look what I did! and she's generally kind enough to indulge me by taking a bite before grumbling and falling back asleep.
But this time, she was the unwitting participant of a taste test, as I carefully gauged her reaction to the sips she was taking. She did not even realize that they had come from different pots. Whatever differences there might have been seemed pretty undetectable.
What about those starchy foods? I cooked up a couple more batches of soup, this time adding some potatoes to them. Here we saw some differences. The potatoes which were cooked in the unseasoned soup tasted bland through to their core, even after the soup was later seasoned. On the other hand, the potatoes cooked in seasoned soup were tasty all the way through. Passing both soups through a blender evened out any differences that cooking the potatoes in salted vs. unsalted water made.
SImilarly, pieces of beef that I cooked in unsalted broth tasted bland even when the broth was subsequently salted, while those cooked in seasoned broth were flavorful.
But there's one factor that seasoning at the end ignores: when I cook, I generally like to taste things as I go and make adjustments as necessary. Do I need a bit more lemon rind in there? Is that sauce acidic enough? Without having at least a base level of salt in the mix, it's difficult to detect other flavors and adjust accordingly.
Bottom line? Unless you're cooking dishes with chunks of meat or starchy foods like potatoes or pasta, there's no real need to salt until the very end (although it doesn't hurt to salt as you go if you're the type of person who tastes through the whole process).
One last word of warning: If you do salt as you go, make sure you take into account any reducing that may happen later on down the line. As liquids reduce, salt gets concentrated. For braises and reductions, I severely under-season at the beginning to ensure that my sauce won't end up too salty at the end.