Friday, February 25, 2011

Cooking Without Tasting

After being away on business for nearly a week I was really looking forward to coming home and cooking my own dinner again. I planned out my meals for the week including one recipe I'm in the process of tweaking and two that were brand new to me.

Cut to me three days into the week and quickly spiraling downward into a vortex of sinus congestion woe. (For the record, I don't believe that's overstating the situation)
Being sick is no fun in general, but this week has been especially aggravating because I have temporarily lost the ability to taste and smell.

I've still cooked on the days I've felt up to it. Tuesday was seared pork with dijon brandy sauce and roasted fennel (still felt reasonably ok at this point), Wednesday was roasted sweet potatoes with goat cheese and relish (slipping into comfort food mode), and yesterday was linguine with creamy tomato sauce (full on sweatpants-glued-to-rear-end-glued-to-couch mode).

The only problem is I have no idea how any of this food actually tasted. The temperatures and textures I'm well aware of but without a functional nose, the taste is entirely lost on me.

This made me realize two things. First, how dependent I am on my ability to taste when I'm cooking. As I should be. Even when a dish is so familiar you can make it without a recipe, one of your ingredients could be spoiled, you may absent-mindedly forget to add salt or you just may be feeling like a little more heat on that particular day. The point is, whether the recipe is old or new, easy or hard, it's essential to taste as you go along. If you notice something that needs adjustment it's much easier to fix it then than when the dish is being served.

The second thing I realized is when I first started cooking, I rarely tasted anything as I was going along. I read and followed recipes line by line relying on a piece of paper, not my own taste buds to tell me if I was doing it right. If it came out poorly in the end I had no way of telling if it was a mistake in the process or a poorly crafted recipe. But I never felt like tasting before completion was necessary, as if it wouldn't taste right anyway because it wasn't finished.

So when should one stop to do a taste test when cooking? Here are a few places I always make sure to taste:

  • Before and after adding any seasoning 
  • Before placing something in the oven to be baked
  • Before and after adding any thickening or thinning agents
Tasting can and should be done at whatever point in the recipe you feel like you need a better read on what's going on in that saucepan down there. If I'm cooking for myself, I don't worry too much about "double dipping" when I'm tasting, but if I'm cooking for others I always have a couple of spoons handy so I can sample without having to lick anything that's going back in the food. 

Happy tasting, dear readers. And when the full functionality of my nose returns, I shall rejoin the ranks of tasting spoon-wielding chefs everywhere.

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