Thinking About Seasoning

I never use salt and pepper. That sounds like an exaggeration or a boast, but it’s just a simple fact. I’m pretty ambivalent about food, and I guess nobody ever taught me how to assess whether something was appropriately seasoned.

I was thinking about seasoning the other day. It’s always struck me as a little odd. We go out and pay somebody else to make our food. On occasion, we pay a lot of money to have a highly skilled (or at least reputable) professional make our food.

Then, often before we’ve even tried it, we modify how that food tastes. In fact, there’s some kind of systemic thing going on with the pepper grinder. It’s specifically offered before we try the food. After all, there’s already pepper in there–why would we want more? And if it needs pepper, why isn’t that essential ingredient added, in full, back in the kitchen? I gather that it’s more about the customer service and the flare of delivering the pepper out of a big phallus, but it’s still peculiar.

The funny thing about salt and pepper is that we are, presumably, adding something to how the food tastes. We can’t, of course, remove salt or pepper that’s already been applied to the dish. We can only affect the front side of the bell curve of taste.

And why isn’t this constant taste adjustment an affront to the chef? The most common argument I hear is something along the lines of “I like my food saltier than the average person”. But the use of table salt is so prevalent–the average person adds salt–so that simply can’t be true. What gives?


  1. Darren:. Not everyone likes Salt and Pepper. Hence, it’s an optional ingredient. Same as you have optional accessories for your cell phone or your iPod..

  2. My assumption was that food was supplied with the lowest possible amount of salt (or pepper) to please those who might want very little or none at all.

    That way those of us who wanted a “middle amount” or a “large amount” could add, and those who wanted none at all could also be happy.

    If you come to eat a my house, you’ll learn to eat with seasonings. Wheeeee!

    (And if you use words like “hense” we might make you sit at the kid’s table.)

  3. My theory is all about surface taste. If you add salt to potatoes while mashing them it enhances the flavour of the food; however, if you sprinkle some salt atop the gravy it’s a completely different taste experience. Another example that comes to mind is surface salt on eggs Benedict and surface pepper on cream soups. yum!

  4. Most (of the ones I have been to, obviously) high end restaurants do not set salt and pepper on the table forcing you to, hopefully, taste the food before you request more seasoning… that is how some chefs get around people altering their dish.

  5. I pepper almost everything because I really like pepper. I don’t have a salt shaker. I have a salt grinder that I use for cooking, salting pasta water, etc., but I never sprinkle salt on things on the table.

    I think chefs don’t get offended because they’re there to produce food people like. Also, things like salt and pepper don’t destroy a dish unless used in large amounts – contrast to something like ketchup, or hot sauce or something, that would really fundamentally alter the dish.

  6. I don’t personally add salt to anything unless I taste it first and extra salt seems necessary (which is rare). But I add pepper to lots of things, because I really like pepper. But other people (including my daughters) don’t like as much, so we’ll each add a different amount.

    There are certain dishes — caesar salad, eggs, clam chowder, and alfredo pasta among them — that I can almost guarantee I’ll like better with some extra pepper, regardless of how they’re made. Even if it were already there and I added more, I doubt I’d find it too much. But not everyone is like me. And if I’m trying something new, especially something prepared by a skilled chef, I won’t add anything until I’ve tasted it.

    Plus I think wader has a good point about surface taste, and moreover, texture. Fresh cracked pepper adds not only flavour, but grit and crunch, something I also like.

    In part it’s tradition and service flair that has salt and pepper shakers at your table, and a server hovering with a pepper grinder at many meals. But there’s reason behind the tradition too. In a way, it’s the same reason coffee and tea come with cream and sugar on the side: not everyone wants them, and those who do want them in different amounts.

  7. I think your customer service theory is dead on.

    I also find it weird that they’ll bring pepper and grated cheese to you before you’ve tried the food, and often there is already salt, pepper and grated cheese on the table that you could use after you’ve tried the food and discovered it wasn’t seasoned to your liking.

  8. I hardly ever agree with Darren, but he’s hit a keen point about the pepper mill.

    I do like pepper on lots of foods, but don’t understand how I’m supposed to know if food will need pepper until I try it.

    But you know why I think the tradition of waiter-ground pepper started? A high-quality pepper mill isn’t cheap, so putting one on every table in a restaurant is a bad use of resources.

    Ergo, two or three pepper mills for the restaurant, and the waiter brings it around.

    See also: waiter-ground parmesan mills.

  9. Salt during the cooking process enhances flavours that are already present in the food, so a high-level chef will salt and taste throughout the cooking process, and then leave the S&P off the table in the restaurant. However, as you go down the “food chain” of quality in restaurants, the chefs are under pressure to reduce salt use in their cooking, or just not take the time to taste things properly. That’s why they start piling on the condiments.

    As for auto-condimenting (the act of putting salt, pepper, ketchup, etc onto food before tasting it), I think it’s the mark of a person who doesn’t frequently get to eat properly seasoned food. Even the snobbiest foodie may become an auto-condimenter when faced with plate after plate of TheMoxieSammyEarl’sClub generic grub.

  10. Darren,

    The pepper thing *is* an affront to the chefs. I worked in the kitchen of a medium-to-high-end pasta restaurant, and we used to hide the pepper grinders.

    Servers love them because they’re tangible evidence of attentive service, i.e. tip-earners. Aeons ago, servers used to wander around with lighters waiting to treat smokers obsequiously. Since smoking indoors became verboten, parmesan and pepper have replaced lighters.

    We cooks (who get a meagre cut of tips) season things properly. We’d like it if customers had a chance to taste their food before it’s swamped in extra pepper, but it’s not part of the service pattern.

  11. Biggles, your answer re: tip-earners makes so much sense. It’s the equivalent of “high-touch” service at the pump (windshield cleaned, sir?).

    Funny thing I’ve noticed — my two buddies from Cape Breton salt and pepper EVERYTHING. Soup. Fries. Pork Chops. Doesn’t matter. It’s like Aussies and Vegemite. Is this something many Maritimers tend to do? Is there a cultural rationale for it?

  12. “It’s like Aussies and Vegemite.”

    Or rather, it’s more like Aussies and Tomato Sauce (Ketchup) on a Meat Pie / Sausage Roll.

    Some restaurants I know simply refuse to provide salt and pepper – instead stating that ‘our food is already seasoned appropriately’.

    I’ve seen a few pretty heated arguments develop over this.

  13. I had always been told that tasting before adding salt and/or pepper is rude as it implies that the food may not have been prepared properly. On the other hand, adding additional seasoning before tasting is not taken as criticism of the chef but rather as evidence that one prefers one’s food “overly” seasoned.

    [I’m not intending to imply that I think that good manners and common sense go hand in hand.]

  14. I would agree with most of you and add – that I rarely add salt (unless it is so bland) but I add pepper to three major things – 1)Soup 2)eggs & 3)sandwiches!

  15. I was taught by my Mom that it was bad manners to add salt to something that someone else had prepared for you. It was like saying “you don’t know how to cook”. Since she cooked the majority of our meals (and she cooked without salt) I grew up not adding any salt for meals I cook nor for meals I am invited to eat.

  16. I agree – I rarely use salt or pepper on a dish. The fact that using S&P is insulting to the chef is bad enough, but it’s even worse when you don’t taste the food first! Particularly salt – isn’t its nickname “white death”?

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