Tis The Seasoning
In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer Adam Gopnik discusses how professional chefs tend to use salt more judiciously than home cooks and goes on to say that this, in part, is what distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs. I tend to think it goes beyond quantity, however, and liken a chef's use of salt more to that of an artist who innately understands how to get the most from their medium. Just as the photographer knows when the aperture is properly adjusted to best capture the warmth of the late afternoon sun or the trumpet player who, with the slightest shift of his lips, instantly finds the sweet spot where his note is perfectly in tune, the experienced chef, with one taste, can discern when salt is required to bring a dish to proper balance. In each of these examples, I think the skill lies first in being able to recognize what it is that's not right and then understanding how to adjust it.
I will say that Gopnik is probably onto something, but I have a different take on it. It's not so much that professionals are ubiquitously heavy handed with salt, but rather that most amateur cooks just tend to err on the side of under-seasoning. This mostly comes from lack of experience, but also probably stems from that one batch of soup or pasta gone horribly wrong, that incessantly haunts many cooks, making them all a little gun shy with the seasoning. There is really no mystery to salt, though, and to use it properly simply requires having an understanding of some of its properties, such as how salty a pinch of salt really is, the differences in types and coarseness or how its flavor blooms and changes as it dissolves into a dish. For the professional cook, who spends hours on end making, tasting and seasoning dishes over and over again, these things become second nature.
Want to know the real secret to our success? Cooking with coarse, kosher salt and using our fingers, not a shaker or a grinder, to measure out what we need. Cooking is an activity that requires all of the senses and in this case the sense of touch is the key to getting the seasoning right. If you are shaking nearly invisible, finely ground salt out of a huge shaker from which you have no idea how much is coming out, how do you have any idea how much you've added? You don't, and this is how you get into trouble. But seeing and feeling what you're working with helps you to build an understanding of how much is enough and helps to build confidence.
So, the first step is to get rid of that box of Morton's and go out and buy a box of coarse, kosher salt. Then, put that salt shaker away and pour your coarse salt into a dish that you can easily reach into. The rest is simple– taste, taste and taste again. Add salt sparingly until you get it right. It's easy to add more salt and nearly impossible to correct an over-salted dish, so proceed with caution, but also with confidence. In no time at all you'll be seasoning like the pros and I'm certain that you'll find the flavor of your food will rise to a whole new level.