‘Tis always the Season, to season

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‘Tis always the Season, to season


Just a little salt & pepper can take a bland food to a mouth pleasing food. But there is so much more! Practice using seasonings, your foods will taste and look better. Yes, the eyes eat first. But the mouth matters the most.

Prep uncooked foods to season:
Take your raw protein or rinsed veggies and put them on clean plates – paper plates will save clean-up time. If vegetables are very wet or meats have excessive myoglobin, dab with a paper towel, and then throw away the paper towel. Myth alert: fresh raw poultry should be rinsed. On the contrary, US consumers buy fresh chicken from reliable sources, so simply keep it cold and use it within three days of purchase. Rinsing will drastically increase the spread of bacteria.
Sprinkle or shake on the seasoning:
Do this by using only one hand to touch the food (rubbing, turning, placing) and the other hand only for introducing the seasoning. It takes a little practice and some planning (opening spices or removing caps, pre-grinding into a dish, pre-measuring ingredients, having plates at the ready, etc.). This hand division is critical for preventing the spreading of bacteria and it is useful when breading items for the fryer – keeps one hand “clean” at all times. Season just enough to give a desirable look, not enough to completely cover, unless you are “blackening” (thank you Chef Prudhomme).

Blackening is a specific cooking method whereby meat/fish is coated with a spicy seasoning (cayenne) then cooked in a white-hot cast-iron pan. The chilled food item is first coated by brushing on melted whole butter (that is why the food must be chilled), the food item is then dredged in the seasoning; if needed a very small amount of clarified butter can be ladled over the food in the pan on the exposed side before turning. The traditional dark crust is achieved by extremely high heat fusing the combination of milk solids in the butter and the seasonings which adheres to the food. This cooking method may produce immense amounts of smoke as the food is quickly cooked on each side. Unless you have a particularly good ventilation hood, safely set up a blackening station outdoors. Google ‘outdoor propane burners’ and then find a proper cast iron pan that will fit (don’t forget to get some good scallop tongs). If this is something that interests you, be mindful of the similar dangers as viewed in outdoor cooking fire disaster videos. If done safely and correctly, blackened filet mignon, snapper, or salmon are terrific. I mean terrific. Yes, you can also blacken tofu. Boom. Drop… the…mic.

How much to use:
Back to that “desirable look” … The eyes eat first, visual recognition is a consideration your brain makes before your mouth does. Before using any blend or rub – taste it. Getting the right amount of seasoning is a bit tricky as you have two sides of the happy family equation – providing a recognizable flavor (enough seasoning) verses a very personal preference (not too much seasoning). Foods that are considered individual portions such as prepared vegetables, chicken thigh or breast, chop, burger, kabob, beefsteak, or fish that fits on the plate are all easily seasoned for those individual tastes. Something larger such as a roast, a whole bird, large side of a fish, rack of ribs, flanks, or loins are exceedingly difficult to manage which seasoned portion will be for which mouth. Practice makes the entire family happy.

Where (in the kitchen) to season:
Never season over your cooking equipment or over the oil/fat in a fryer. Why? Because the seasonings will corrode and soil a grill, a burner, or breakdown the cooking oil/fat. If you are seasoning something while its cooking, be mindful of that and apply the seasonings carefully and just on the food itself. Once again, never season fried foods directly over the frying oil. Safely remove the fried food from the fryer and then season elsewhere.

When to season:
When deep-frying a food (a dry heat method of cooking) the food may be seasoned before or after cooking. Cuisines which use a wok for cooking, as in stir-frying, will first season the cooking oil. This allows for less seasoning as the heat medium (oil) distributes the flavors through the cooking method. In western kitchens, cuisines using sautoir/sauteuse pans, grills, or ovens in primary dry heat methods, you should season the food first, then if needed toss with an oil/fat (blackening notwithstanding). The water-soluble ingredients will activate and bloom (salt and sugar will not dissolve in oil), readying the food to be either reserved or cooked.

Condiment order of operations:
If making fresh mayonnaise, add your seasonings to the vinegar. If using a commercial mayonnaise, simply add a small amount of water (no more than 1:1 ratio) to the bowl then add the seasoning – this will allow any salt or sugar to dissolve, then mix in the mayonnaise. There are people who resist mayonnaise. I have heard of them. Olive oil is a common substitute for them. Bonus Fact: there exist condiments which are cooked (real mayo is not cooked), these are whipped miracles of water and a sugar plus everything that mayo has – except less oil. They are not mayonnaise because their oil content is under 65% (less calories too). Others just forgo the oils all together and use vinegars only. Same seasoning methods still apply. Salts and sugars dissolve in liquids (water-based mediums such as vinegars), not in oils/fats. Bonus Facts: A mayonnaise is an emulsion when the egg yolk has absorbed the oil (1 yolk can absorb ¼ C oil). Sauce Hollandaise (eggs benedict) replaces the oil with melted butter. A vinaigrette is a temporary emulsion – suspension of water and oil. The vinegar holds the oil for a while. Prepared mustard is also an emulsion. Commercials brands add ingredients to ensure your salad dressings and condiments last longer.

It’s a wrap:
Finally, please no aerial bombing missions. Purposefully introduce the blend, rub, or seasoning about 2-4 inches above the food. This allows you to easily maintain the desired coverage onto the food by exactly placing the entire combination of ingredients without the heavier granulations dominating the surface while permitting any leaf herbs or powders to drift off course. I know there are many cooking videos that show the seasoning being tossed in from the next zip code but think about the effect of gravity and air resistance of ingredients (think mass and distance). Cool, sexy, exciting seasoning flair doesn’t put the flavor just on the food – you are spending money to season the board, bench, plate, and the floor too. It is ok to slowly shake the spice jar or rub the blend with your fingers to assist the process. Use your food hand to expose the sides, lay bare any hidden parts, pull back poultry skin, and season these surfaces too. Most chefs will season then rub, add more seasonings, rubbing again to ensure every surface is well seasoned and evenly covered (another reason to use just one hand for the seasoning and the other for the food). Remember seasonings enhance your food with flavors, provide an eye-appealing affect, and make others wonder what you did to the food – making you a great cook. Practice, adjust, and enjoy.

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