When I was just starting out in the kitchen, spices intimidated me quite a bit. I was always afraid that I was going to use way too much of something and totally mess up my food, so I was often using way less than I should have. Even when I was following the measurements in a recipe, the final product would sometimes be disappointingly bland. But I was hesitant to ever add extra.
It wasn’t until I started to learn more about cooking—by watching expert tutorials and reading cookbooks—that it became clear what I was doing wrong. And the more I watched a pro throw a palmful rather than a pinch of something into a recipe, the more I became comfortable doing it myself, and started to notice an instant improvement in my home-cooked meals.
Seasoning food can seem even trickier because there aren’t really any hard and fast rules for how much to season every dish you cook. Each spice has a different level of potency, and everyone has different tastes, so the correct amount of seasoning will vary greatly depending on the spice, the dish, and the person consuming it, Dan Zuccarello, executive food editor of books at America’s Test Kitchen, tells SELF.
If your food is regularly turning out bland or just sort of so-so on the flavor front, it probably has something to do with the way you’re seasoning it. From not using enough salt to holding onto spices for way too long, I asked Zuccarello to share the common mistakes people make and what to do instead to ensure that everything you cook turns out irresistibly delicious.
1. You don’t salt your food.
Salting is extremely important, because it does so much for food, Zuccarello explains. The universal ingredient has the power to make meat juicier, veggies meatier, sweets sweeter, and so much more. As Samin Nosrat explains in her essential cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, when you use salt in the right amount, it will make your food taste more like itself.
Which brings us to…
2. You aren’t using the right amount of salt.
Whenever you’re boiling something in water, that water should be super salty—about 1 tablespoon of salt (preferably kosher salt) for every 4 quarts of water, says Zuccarello. Even though that sounds like a recipe for something inedible, it will guarantee your food is properly seasoned throughout. Plus, much of the salt will end up evaporating and/or going down the drain, so you don’t have to worry. If you’re not sure if your water is salty enough, taste it! If it makes your lips purse, then you’re good to go.
When you’re adding salt directly to a dish (not just the cooking water), you need to use much less. Start small and work your way up. Work with a teaspoon at a time and be sure to taste with every addition. That way you’ll know for sure if it needs more, and if you’ve over salted, you’ll have time to fix your mistake (more on that in a minute).
As for meat, Zuccarello says that you should use 1 teaspoon of kosher salt for every pound of meat you’re seasoning. (BTW, here’s why cooks suggest kosher salt over regular table salt.) “Salting proteins for an extended amount of time helps [them] retain their own natural juices,” he explains. Just be sure that you’re not salting something too far ahead of time. Chicken, steak, and pork can benefit from a longer salting period because they’re much tougher—be sure to season them for at least an hour, and up to 24 hours, before you intend to cook. On the other hand, fish and shellfish will dry out if salted too soon, so it’s best to wait until you’re ready to start cooking to season them.
If you’ve over salted something, there’s a super easy fix: Add more of the other ingredients you’re using until it doesn’t taste too salty anymore. Maybe that’s more water in a soup, or more butter in a sauce, or more lemon juice in a vinaigrette. Every time you add another ingredient, taste the dish, and keep going until it tastes just right again. Sure, you’ll have a larger portion of whatever you were cooking, but at least you won’t have to throw it all away and start from scratch.
3. You always use black pepper.
Black pepper is great for a lot of reasons. “Beyond its heat and sharp bite, [it] enhances our ability to taste food, stimulating salivary glands so we experience flavors more fully,” says Zuccarella. But, he adds, you don’t need to use it in everything the way you do with salt. It can definitely enhance the flavor of whatever you’re cooking, but it won’t make or break a dish the way salt can. Basically, use it when you want to, but don’t count on it to make your food delicious all on its own.
4. You only use pre-ground spices.
“You’ll get more flavor if you buy whole spices and grind them just before using,” Zuccarello explains. “Grinding releases the volatile compounds that give the spice its flavor and aroma.” Of course, this would require you to invest in a spice grinder, but luckily they aren’t that expensive (like this one here). You can totally stick with pre-ground spices if you prefer, but if you’re really looking to enhance a dish’s flavor, this is a good trick to try.
5. Your spices are super old.
If you’ve already used a ton of a spice and can’t detect its flavor, that might be because your spices are too old, says Zuccarello. “The longer a spice is stored, the more compounds disappear,” he explains. The fresher the spices, the more flavorful they will be. Try to refresh your spice rack every year, and if you’re not sure how old something is, smell it. The weaker it smells the weaker it will taste.
6. You’re not letting the spices cook.
Zuccarello says that “blooming” spices in a fat source (like oil, butter, or ghee) or toasting them in a dry skillet will better release their flavors. So when you can, be sure to cook the spices before anything else. Sauté them in a pan with a bit of oil just until they become fragrant, then add your other ingredients. Even if you want to sprinkle a spice on top of something, like toast or pasta, he says they will be so much more flavorful if you heat them up for a bit first.
7. You’re not tasting as you go.
The only way to really know what a dish needs is to taste it. If you add a bunch of salt and spices to a dish right at the beginning, and don’t taste it again until its finished, it probably won’t end up that great. And then you’ve wasted all that time you had to remedy it.
Also, feel free to go off-recipe. The measurements of spices that one calls for might be too much or too little satisfy your tastes. Season a little bit at a time, taste after each addition, and adjust accordingly. You’re the one cooking, so go ahead and make the dish your own.