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Articles / To Get Intimate With Your Food, You Gotta Taste It

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To Get Intimate With Your Food, You Gotta Taste It

Published March 21, 2024

How a little jar of tasting spoons can make you a better, more knowledgeable cook

Photo: Tucker Shaw

It’s the little things.

I remember a music professor back in college who, when a student asked how he’d become so knowledgeable about Bach, answered: “I listened to a lot of Bach.” And a sommelier in New York once told me, when I asked how she’d developed her deep understanding of Riesling: “I drank a lot of Riesling.” (I am paraphrasing, but you get the point.)

Of course, there’s more to both stories. You don’t become a tenured teacher just by listening to records, or an MS-level wine expert just by glugging grape juice. The professor also had advanced degrees in music theory; he’d done the reading. And the sommelier had rigorously interrogated the subject through books and travel.

But at the core of both fonts of expertise was the same action: Consuming. They’d each participated — not just intellectually but physically — with their subjects. This commitment to immersion, to flooding their senses (hearing, smell, taste, touch, vision, intuition) and contemplating their responses, was an essential component in how they came to understand all that they do.

The most important way to build knowledge in the kitchen is to put food in your mouth.

There’s a lesson in there for a home cook, and that is this: Beyond the reading, the cooking classes, the careful adherence to recipes, the most important way to build knowledge in the kitchen is to put food in your mouth. To taste.

And taste.

And taste.

And I don’t just mean sitting down at the table to dig in to your final product, I mean tasting as you go. I mean tasting the stew as it cooks; tasting the sauce as it reduces; the pasta as it boils, the fish as it poaches, the stock as it simmers. And I mean paying attention, close attention, to how your body and mind react. Sense it, feel it, name it, remember.

Food changes as it cooks, in texture and flavor (remember, tasting is about both), but something we rarely talk about is the way that these changes express themselves along the way. You don’t go directly from point A (a cutting board filled with chopped onions) to point Z (a half-cup of caramelized onion jam). There are stations along the way.

The slices of onion on your cutting board are crisp and pungent. Shortly after they hit the heat, they appear to go limp. Then they begin to expel water in puffs of steam. Then they begin to go golden. Then they begin to go brown — amber to chestnut to mocha to umber. Take them off now, or they will blacken and burn.

Photo: Getty Images

You can watch all of this happen, of course, noting the differences you can see — shape, volume, and color. Doing so will give you some insight into how long this takes (with onions, I’m sorry to say, almost always longer than you want it to take), and insight into what those changes look like along the way.

The look of things tells you only so much.

But the look of things tells you only so much. To really get intimate with these changes, you must also taste.

As the onions cook, bring a spoonful of them to your lips at five or ten-minute intervals. Focus in. With your nose, you’ll notice a difference in aroma — from alliaceous to sulfurous to earthy to mellow. With your teeth, you’ll notice a difference in texture — from crisp to soft to slimy to sticky. And with your tongue, you’ll notice a difference in flavor — from sharp to savory to grassy to sweet.

I know, I know. This all sounds kind of precious, doesn’t it? You, standing in the soft light of a primly-propped kitchen, cooing over a cooktop, enveloped in the throes of culinary passion. Someone call Stanley Tucci.

But set aside the twee image for a moment, because the process of tasting as you go is pure practicality — and not just because it might save you from ruining dinner tonight.

Tasting as you go gives you the kind of sense memory and muscle memory that will inform your approach the next time you, to stick with our example, need to caramelize a bunch of onions. You’ll be able to eyeball how many raw onions you might need. You’ll remember just how thinly (or thickly) to cut them. You’ll be able to anticipate and make use of the stretches of “inactive” cooking time. You’ll sense when they’re close to finished, so you can be ready for the next step in your recipe. You’ll know better when to ring the dinner bell. And you’ll stash away valuable information that will inform your imagination as you envision new ideas for what to do with the next bunch of onions you bring home.

But until it’s a habit (and you should make it a habit) you have to remember to do it.

A modest proposal

So here’s my proposal: Take a page from professional kitchens and keep a few tasting spoons on the counter next to your cooktop. Nothing special, just a jar or mug filled with some teaspoons.

Small thing, right?

Spoons serve as a visual reminder for you to taste your cooking. They are begging to be used.

But when they are sitting right there, right at hand, those spoons serve as a visual reminder for you to taste your cooking. They are begging to be used. Indulge them. Grab one, dip it into the pot, have a little taste, take the mental notes you want to take (or even better, jot them down), and then set the spoon aside to wash. Adjust your dish if you want to, or don’t if you don’t. In a few minutes, grab another spoon and taste again. Scoop, slurp, savor, consider, and carry on.

A few considerations that probably don’t need stating but I’ll state them anyway: Be careful not to burn your tongue. Don’t sample uncooked things that aren’t safe to eat raw. And don’t double dip, especially if you are cooking for others. Just grab another spoon — they’re sitting right there.

When you develop the habit of tasting as you go you learn not just about the food, but about yourself. What are the things you like, and don’t like? Are you satisfied with the seasoning level you started out with, or would you ramp it up or down? What do the flavors at hand make you think of? What would you do to improve them? These are deceptively small questions, because what they’re really doing, besides asking for answers, is illuminating who you are, as an eater and a cook.

This is the very best and most exciting thing about the practice of cooking: You keep getting better.

And when you know more about who you are you become a better cook. And you keep getting better, because there is always more to learn. This is the very best and most exciting thing about the practice of cooking: You keep getting better.

Tasting what you cook, as you cook, won’t teach you everything. Like the professor and the sommelier, you’ve got to hit the books, too. But one bolsters the other: you draw knowledge from outside sources, and you develop knowledge internally. The result? Confidence.

It’s a tiny thing, just a little jar of spoons. But there is no adjustment I’ve ever made in my kitchen that’s produced better dividends.


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