We classify seasonings separately from herbs and spices since they are perceived in a different way. Seasonings affect the four (or five) basic tastes the tongue is capable of sensing: bitter, sour, sweet, and salty (and, now, researchers say, glutamate or umami).
In cooking, we are mostly interested in the flavors imparted by acids, sweeteners, salt, and glutamates. All of these taste sensations occur naturally in foods, but some are more convenient to use than others because of their concentrations and availability. For example, there are sugars in fruit, but they are overpowered by the acids, so you wouldn’t use a lemon to sweeten something; using sugar or sugar substitute makes more sense.
Let’s take these categories one at a time:
The primary acids we use in cooking are citrus juices, vinegars, and wines. They are used primarily to give a fresh, bright taste to food, and generally perk up your mouth.
The primary citrus juices used are orange, lemon, and lime, but others are used occasionally. The juice is used as the acid in the recipe. If we want the fruit flavor, we generally also add some rind or grated rind so that some of the essential oils of the fruit get used. The organic molecule that provides the essence of lemon and lime are identical, except that one is the mirror image of the other. Use that to win your next trivia contest.
Vinegar is available in many forms, including white, red wine, rice wine, balsamic, apple cider, and many more. These are all forms of flavored acetic acid, which is basic vinegar. Tabasco sauce, for example, is vinegar, salt, and tabasco pepper essence (aromatic oils).
Red and white wines called for in recipes refers to drinking wine, such as chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. Most chefs’ rule is if you won’t drink it, don’t cook with it. But that doesn’t mean a $100 bottle. Just use the house wine you keep on hand for drinking. Another type of wine you keep on hand for cooking are the classic flavor-producing wines like Sherry, Port, Marsala, and Madeira. These wines generally stay in your cupboard a long time, so the producers have added salt or other additives to keep them from spoiling. Don’t worry about that; the quantities are small and the amount of wine used is also small. Believe me, a good recipe that uses them is worth it.
Acids have many uses in cooking: lemon juice is famous for keeping apples and avocado from oxidizing (which turns them dark) too fast, and in fact ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is used commercially for that purpose.
Vegetables always respond favorably to the use of acids, from vinegar in potatoes to Tabasco and/or vinegar in Swiss chard or spinach.
Acids deepen the color and enhance the flavor of fruits, either fresh or canned, in addition to delaying discoloration as mentioned above. Acids help tenderize meat and poultry, and helps keep fish firm and white: Use one or two tablespoons of one of the acids per cup of oil as a marinade.
Sauces certainly wouldn’t be the same without acids. Tartar or hollandaise without lemon juice just doesn’t compute.
Acid added to sugar while it cooks helps convert it from sucrose to glucose and fructose. That will keep the jelly from crystallizing, for example. Ditto for syrup, which would be grainy and unappetizing otherwise.
So as you explore the world of cooking, you can sometimes exchange one acid for another, but never eliminate it. The chemistry of cooking is very complicated, and sometimes not fully understood, but many have learned from experience what works and what doesn’t. Experiment all you want, but not on food for company, dates, or relatives!
The salt referred to in cooking is the mineral sodium chloride, a naturally-occurring substance both by itself and in nearly all plants and animals. It is essential to health; in the wild, animals will walk miles to the nearest salt lick, and will become lethargic and easy prey otherwise. Only if you have a serious medical disorder resulting in fluid retention should you avoid salt (obviously you must obey your doctor). A lack of salt can cause other medical problems.
In the cooking industry, the salt in recipes is called “bloom” because of the effect it has on other flavors. You use salt not to make something salty (except maybe snacks and fries), but to bring out and enhance the other flavors. A good dish will taste bland and uninteresting without salt. Adding the proper amount will bring the flavors alive without the result tasting salty.
Salt opens the taste buds in your mouth and makes them more receptive to flavors. It has a lot to do with water transfer in and out of foods, and that is why it is sometimes used at the beginning of a recipe (brining, for example) or at the end.
Many recipes, including mine, sometimes instruct you to “salt to taste”. Don’t freak about this, just add some salt like you would to your plate. Of course, in a pot or pan there is usually considerably more food, so more salt will be needed. Just taste, salt, and taste again until you get the hang of it. If you get carried away, see if our Disaster Recovery page can help.
You usually don’t need to add salt to food that has already been processed with salt: ham, bacon, corned beef, and foods that you have brined, like chicken.
Salt has been used for centuries to preserve food, and is so today to a lesser extent. (Most of us don’t need to keep bacon in our saddle bags anymore during the cattle drive.)
When “sugar” is mentioned in a recipe, it means ordinary granulated sugar. Other forms of sugar are also used in cooking, but they will be called out specifically, like confectioner’s sugar, powdered sugar, and light or dark brown sugar.
Granulated sugar will get lumps in it if it gets damp, and you can either break them up or sift them out. Brown sugar, on the other hand, gets hard as it loses moisture. Keep it in a tight container to retain its moisture. If you have to, you can warm it up in the oven to make it more workable.
Honey is much more complicated than sugar, and so far only bees can make it. It not only contains sucrose, but fructose and dextrose as well. In addition to the sugars, it contains various aromatic oils, depending on the flowers the bees visit, and some complex acids. Honey is not a sweet as sugar. You can’t use honey one-for-one in recipes to replace sugar, but you can usually get by using 1/2 cup of each for one cup of sugar.
Honey brings out flavor in other foods even better than salt. Put some on a slice of ripe tomato and you’ll see what I mean. For a simple and delicious salad, add some chopped chives and black pepper.
Molasses is the byproduct of refining sugar, and in addition to what little people eat, is used as cattle feed. So the cows get the chromium and other nutrients found in raw sugar instead of people. About the only time I see molasses used in recipes any more is in some barbeque sauces.
Maple syrup is not generally used as a sweetener because of its distinctive flavor. But on pancakes, waffles, and, many say, on sausage and bacon, it’s really hard to beat.
Karo syrup is corn syrup made from corn starch. It comes in both light and dark forms, and is mainly used in baking. It’s not nearly as sweet as sugar, but it brings out the sweetness and flavors in other ingredients. Couldn’t make a pecan pie without it.
The fifth sense of the tongue, most scientists now believe, is umami, or glutamate. We usually purchase it in the form of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, usually under the brand name “Accent”. It has only a slight flavor of its own, but has the remarkable quality of making other flavors more pronounced. It can’t replace salt, for example, but it increases salt’s saltiness flavor. It does the same for sugar.
MSG is the only ingredient that not only spreads flavor quickly throughout you mouth, but also sends the aromatic components to your nose. It is especially effective with proteins, including both meat, vegetables, and eggs.
Some people avoid MSG, and the reasons aren’t clear to me. If it’s the sodium, you should know that, first of all, unless you have certain medical problems, you shouldn’t avoid salt in the first place; it is a necessary nutrient. Secondly, while salt is 40% sodium by weight, MSG is only 17%. Take a look at its composition: C5NaNH8O4. And compare that with salt: NaCl. So sodium can’t be the reason logically. And even after many studies, nothing negative has been attributed to its use. Another important factor is that it is present, like salt and sugar, in almost every food we eat.
Some Chinese restaurants even go so far to post a sign in the window that says “No MSG”. For me, they might as well post a sign that says “Don’t Eat Here”.
In my opinion, and I encourage you to do your own research, MSG is an excellent and valuable seasoning.