The success of a dish hinges on the right seasoning.
The main flavour in cooking is often conjured up by the smallest of ingredients – seasonings! Which herbs, sauces and ground spices are required to create a mouth-watering flavour? Here's a little guide.
Once as valuable as gold, peppercorns, bright yellow curry powder and saffron threads found their way from far-off lands into European cuisine hundreds of years ago. These days, a whole host of seasonings from around the world can be found in our supermarkets. Packaged in little glass bottles, sachets and grinders, these precious ingredients can be used in all kinds of dishes. They are responsible for providing the finishing touch, added kick or extra special something that will either make or break the dish. Opera composer and passionate foodie, Gioacchino Rossini, knew this only too well. In fact, the wrong colours can do just as much harm as the wrong seasoning.
It's not all that easy to navigate your way around the colourful world of seasonings. As a general rule, ground herbs and spices should only be added at the end so that the flavour doesn't disappear before the food has chance to enter your mouth. The same applies to fresh herbs, which should ideally be added just before the food is served. The seasonings used when flavouring, tasting and completing a dish should complement each other as far as possible – not the easiest of tasks for amateur chefs. This is why it is important to begin with small amounts, sample the food and then season carefully to taste.
Certain seasonings can be added to a dish from the start. These include salt and almost all seasonings that are used whole, such as bay leaves, peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, but also rosemary and parsley. These ingredients take time to release their flavour within a dish.
Garlic and onion, the secret flavour heroes of the kitchen, are usually added to a dish at the very beginning, or else used for garnish at the end. Not all varieties are equally well suited to flavouring a dish. The yellow onion or common onion is most prevalent here in Switzerland. It is the most pungent variety of onion and is suitable for frying, cooking, steaming and roasting. It is ideal for soups, sauces, risottos and stews.
The red onion is milder than its yellow counterpart and so is often used raw in salads and sandwiches, for example. The Spanish onion can grow to the size of a small melon and can weigh as much as 200 g. It has a slightly sweet flavour and is ideal for salads and fillings.
The small onion looks like a small yellow onion, but has a milder flavour. It can also be eaten raw and is ideal for use in sauces and preserves. The shallot is a mild onion with a shiny, reddish skin. As such, it can be used raw in vinaigrettes and sauces, for instance.
The spring onion does not take its name from the season, but rather the fact that it is harvested earlier than other onions. As a result, its bulb is relatively small and it has long green tops, similar to a leek. It is important to use this mild onion raw or to not cook it for too long, otherwise it will quickly lose its flavour. When finely chopped, the green tops can be used in place of chives.
Whether you press or chop your garlic, it's important to first remove the greenish sprout from the centre of the clove as this can impart a bitter flavour. Garlic can also turn bitter if it is fried for too long in the pan. Similar to onion, garlic should only be cooked until it turns slightly translucent and should not be allowed to discolour too much. If you only want a subtle hint of garlic in your dish, you should press the peeled cloves, fry them (with potatoes, for example), and remove them before serving.
Salt is a staple seasoning in almost any dish. More often than not, a pinch of salt is even added to desserts. As such, it's worth making sure you use the right kind. Table salt is also known as cooking salt. It goes through multiple refining processes to remove other additives. In Switzerland, iodine – which is important for thyroid and brain health – is usually added. Table salt is ideal for baking as it disperses easily. By nature, sea salt contains a small amount of iodine, as well as magnesium, calcium and copper. It is extracted from sea water in salt pans. The salt crystals are slightly coarser than those of table salt. Sea salt is great for refining dishes.
Fleur de sel is a special type of sea salt that is harvested purely by hand from salt pans. The grains are coarser and are particularly well suited to cold dishes. Sel gris collects directly underneath the fleur de sel. The crystals are still very moist, meaning that they are easy to crush in a mortar or ceramic grinder. Sel gris is a great choice for salt crusts on meat and fish. Hawaiian salt is a type of sea salt from Hawaii. It can be black, green or red. The colours come from the subsequent addition of activated carbon, bamboo leaf extract and Hawaiian clay, which gives the salt its characteristic flavour and creates a visually stunning garnish.
Whether of the white, green, pink or black variety, pepper is a universal seasoning. It has a powerful, fiery flavour. It goes with any dish and will even intensify the flavour of strawberries. Curry is not a spice, but rather a blend of spices. It comprises turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek seeds, ginger, pepper and other ingredients that may vary. As a result, every curry tastes different. The blend can be sweet, mild or spicy, and is generally used in Asian dishes or Middle Eastern recipes. Saffron is the world's most expensive spice. Fortunately, you only need to use it in small quantities. One to two pinches of the spice are usually sufficient to give a risotto a wonderful yellow colour or to season a fish dish. Saffron is available in powder form or as unprocessed threads from the saffron crocus. There is no difference in flavour, simply in look.
Caraway is mild and light, and goes well with cabbage, root vegetables and fatty meat dishes. It is also a popular choice for seasoning bread, sausage and cheese. It is not to be confused with cumin! This particular spice is predominantly used in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine and has a much stronger, distinctive flavour that doesn't always go with other spices. Although poisonous if consumed in large quantities, a couple of pinches of nutmeg will add a sweet, aromatic touch to many dishes. Nutmeg goes well with potatoes – mashed or in a gratin, for example – as well as spinach and cauliflower.
Seasoning doesn't just have to come from powders, grains and threads, it can also come from ready-made sauces and pastes. The very dark soy sauce from Asia has been a staple condiment in Swiss kitchens for a number of years. It is aromatic and very salty. Mustard is one condiment that you should always have at home – ideally mild, hot and coarse-grained varieties. It is used in marinades, dressings, sandwiches and as a spicy accompaniment to all kinds of sausages and meat products.
It may smell like an entire fish market in the midday sun, but measured out correctly, Asian fish sauce will give many dishes a wonderfully aromatic flavour. Worcestershire sauce may be tricky to pronounce but no fridge is complete without it. It is particularly good in tartar sauces, cocktail sauces and for seasoning sautéed carrots.
Whether dishes should be cooked with a high-quality wine or a cheap cooking wine is a bone of contention among chefs and wine connoisseurs. Generally speaking, if the wine is corked, it should not be used for cooking. If not, the more emphasis you wish to place on the wine and therefore the later it is added to the sauce for the purpose of flavouring, the better quality it should be – red or white. N.B.: Use white for delicious white wine sauces, cooking strips of meat or for risottos and fondue, and use red for red wine sauces, sugo and rich stocks.
Herbs give a dish extra depth, as well as freshness and colour. Ideally, you should use fresh or frozen herbs. Dried herbs should keep their flavour for around one year. Whether you love it or hate it, coriander is taking kitchens by storm. It is suitable for Asian dishes and is added just before serving. Sage is soft and sweet and can also be a little bitter. It goes well with calves' liver, roast pork and lamb, as well as saltimbocca and ossobuco.
Thyme has a more intense flavour dried than fresh. It is great for sauces, chicken and mushrooms. You would usually cook the sprigs whole and remove them before serving. All stews should be made with at least one bay leaf, which is then removed before serving. Bay leaves have a sharp, bitter flavour.
Oregano has a strong flavour that is both aromatic and spicy. As such, it should be used sparingly, for instance on pizzas, in tomato sauces and numerous Mediterranean dishes.
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