Salt to taste. If you’ve ever read a recipe, you’ve probably seen that line. Though common, it’s also a common source of confusion for home cooks. “Whose taste?” some ask. The answer, your taste, often leads to more questioning: “What is my taste?” or “What if my taster’s no good?” Salt to taste just means salt your food until tastes right to you. That means there are no right or wrong answers. Maybe I like a little more salt, and you like a little less. But if you want to find out more about what you like – your taste – I recommend a comparative tasting of basic cooking staples.
Think of it as a wine tasting, but instead, assemble a mix of various brands or versions of one or more everyday grocery staples, such as salt, pasta, cheese, olive oil, chicken stock, vinegar, fresh or canned vegetables, such as tomatoes (above), beans, etc., peanut butter and canned tuna. I’ve even done comparative tastings with frozen peas. For instance, with Parmesan cheese, you’d want to try out an array of price ranges and styles, from freshly grated authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, to a pre-shredded supermarket to the dried, grated stuff in a can. Remove a portion from the packaging and taste each item blindly, take notes and compare. You can use small dishes, small paper plates, whatever, just make sure you mark them with a number or letter and keep track.
- SaltySeattle.com’s awesome salt-tasting party
- Nami-Nami’s fresh tomato tastings
- Fresh apple tasting tips from U.S. Apples
- Peanut butter tasting at 5DollarDinners
This is a fun experiment to do with friends or neighbors. Just ask each to bring what he or she already has in the cupboards or fridge, or assign them something to bring. It’s a great conversation starter, and an excellent addition to a book club, dinner party or other gathering.
After having done this with numerous people over the past few years, here’s a few tips. Try at least three to five samples of each food products, but no more than that or it will overwhelm most people’s palates. Most people don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what they’re tasting, so I recommend It’s helpful to provide a list of descriptive words to get people thinking about what they’re tasting, such as this list of wine terms (most can be applied to food), and this list of food-related words.
I usually hand out tasting cards for people to jot down any notes, likes and dislikes or rankings. Here’s one a mom made for a picky eater, but it could be used for a comparative tasting, too. These tasting cards are a little more complex – including categories for aroma, texture, tenderness and aftertaste – but they give you an idea of how in-depth you can get with tasting. Really, it can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. I tend to use something like this, which you’re free to download and customize for your tasting.
What’s important isn’t what the others think, but starting to understand what you like and seeing how what you purchase and start cooking with affects the final outcome of the dish. As the French chefs taught me at Le Cordon Bleu, it’s important to taste, taste, taste as you cook — taste the ingredients you’re using before you add them, tastes multiple times as you cook a dish and taste it again before you serve it.
Recommended reading: I’m a fan of the book The Tasting Club by Dina Cheney, which provides more insight into how to conduct tastings of all kinds of ingredients, including chocolate and olives. Her book gave me the idea to start doing tastings in the first place, and I still refer to it. If you’re interested in tastings, it’s certainly worth a look.