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I've seen lots of recipes that call for a pinch of nutmeg in mashed potatoes and in white sauce. It's not very much and just provides a slight elusive flavour. I do enjoy it, but often don't bother with it and I'm just wondering what the purpose of it is?

Is it just a tradition, or does it actually serve some specific purpose?

Is it a little like the ubiquitous teaspoon of vanilla in baking, which is ostensibly to promote other flavours and you usually don't really taste it in the final item?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I think you've answered your own question. It adds an elusive flavor that most people feel enhances the creamy flavors.

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Yep, the purpose is simply to taste good. I highly recommend using freshly grated nutmeg, it is much more vibrant and aromatic. Buying the whole nuts is quite inexpensive and they grate very easily on a microplane. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Feb 3 '11 at 21:46
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plus one for freshly grated nutmeg. –  bikeboy389 Feb 3 '11 at 21:51
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Yep just there for the wonderful taste. I have never tried it in mash though but nutmeg goes with a lot of savoury or sweet dishes where cream or milk is used. Couldn't agree more with Michael, fresh is best. –  vwiggins Feb 4 '11 at 15:24
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Non-freshly grated nutmeg has another name: sawdust. Another flavor that works well in a subtle amount for mashed potatoes is horseradish, which I otherwise have no use for. I was stunned the first time I had it at a great place in Las Vegas that no longer exists. –  renegade Feb 13 '12 at 20:21
    
First answer: Traditional French flavouring that has been carried forward for those traditional French recipes. Kinda like Olive oil being used in Med cooking, dried fruits in desert cooking, fish sauce in Asian. Second Answer: Rounds out the flavours by giving it some depth. Pototo can have a thin watery taste and the nutmeg gives it a low note. Bechamel, if done poorly, will have an uncooked flour taste and the nutmeg covers that up quite nicely. –  Chef Flambe Feb 14 '12 at 5:23
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I always thought of it this way...

Most recipes that you see come from chefs. Chefs want their food to be thought of as great. By putting a spice/flavor that is a little elusive makes you want to take another bite to try to figure it out. Sooner than you realize, your plate has been all eaten, and you feel that because your plate is finished you must have really enjoyed your meal.

That is the same reason that many restaurants have smaller portions.

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This seems overly cynical. The addition of a flavor improves the food, whether or not you know what the flavor is. Yes, it gets you to enjoy the food and eat it. That's the point of good cooking. –  Jefromi Feb 3 '11 at 20:22
    
I agree with @boxed. I think there is an element of conspiracy :) –  zanlok Feb 3 '11 at 20:35
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Most recipes come from cooks - I think it's rather rare for chefs to produce recipes that are actually practical to prepare in a home kitchen. –  Aaronut Feb 4 '11 at 0:28
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I feel people go way overboard with nutmeg in savory dishes. It's trendy, it's chic and they do it because they think it's fancy, but it tastes awful. If you can taste the nutmeg, you put too much in. Don't get me wrong, I can coat custard, or any creamy dessert with a quarter inch of the stuff, and savor every bite. Becasue it goews so well with SUGAR!!! Not butter, not salt and pepper, not savory at all. Sorry, pretentious hipsters who think you know how to cook, it just sucks.

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You're entitled to your opinion. Many people (including Indians using traditional recipes, the French that have used nutmeg in savory dishes since long before Jacques Pépin, and especially the Greeks) would argue that nutmeg (used judiciously) adds a lovely warm layer of flavor to many savory dishes. Alton Brown would probably get a kick out of being called a "pretentious hipster", but I wouldn't recommend trying to the nutmeg out of his pocket. He's pretty attached to that thing. –  Jolenealaska Dec 21 '13 at 7:46
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