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Do all chefs sample food before serving it?

I ask because I feel like there is a huge sanitary problem here. If the chef gets a taste of the food, doesn't he risk his saliva getting into the food itself?

When I cook at home, should I sample all food before serving it? Is it sanitary?

Some background: I watch a lot of cooking shows, and go to some food festivals, and more often than not, I see chefs taste whatever they're cooking with a small spoon, and later reuse that same spoon to taste again. I could understand that using one spoon for each taste is wasteful, but at the same time I feel like it could cause serious sanitary issues.

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If you've got a commercial-grade dishwasher, and extra 100 spoons isn't a big problem. –  john3103 Jul 31 at 19:53
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As Bobby Flay once said, "If you're not tasting, you're not cooking". It's the best way to know whether what you're serving is properly seasoned and allows you to adjust the dish as you make it. –  Dan C Jul 31 at 20:00
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@DanC That's so true that I have to agree with it despite my all-consuming hatred for Bobby Flay. –  logophobe Jul 31 at 21:21
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The safety question has already been asked and answered, including some about what typically happens in kitchens: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/43407/… You will probably get much better answers to the part about what you should do (particularly in terms of cooking good food, not safety) if you focus on that. –  Jefromi Jul 31 at 22:30
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Mythbusters determined that double-dipping has no significant effect. They used chips, but if the thing being double-dipped is a spoon, I doubt the result would be much different. –  Phil Frost Aug 1 at 11:08

6 Answers 6

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Any halfway competent chef should indeed be tasting. The only way to know whether you're putting up good food is to check it yourself - and you'd better be consistent if you want to continue getting paid for it.

That's not to say that all chefs do, nor that there's any one standard for how frequently to taste or what method should be used. It's pretty obvious that using your hands to taste or double-dipping is frowned on... but shortcuts do happen when it's the middle of the rush and you have 30 things to be doing at once.

The best practice I've personally seen in a commercial kitchen was to have a large set of spoons at each station, kept with the "business end" submerged in hot water with a mild sanitizer solution. Each chef also carried a few clean towels which they changed out copiously throughout the evening (these have a million uses, from wiping hands dry to cleaning plate rims to handling hot pan handles). When tasting, we'd grab a spoon, tap off excess water, wipe with a clean towel if necessary, take a small taste, and discard. This got to be as much of a habit as washing your hands after handling raw meat or wiping down your cutting board. The used spoons would be collected and washed regularly along with used pans and so on, then returned to the line. With a system like this there's minimal risk for contamination and relatively little waste, except for frequent washing.

At home, you can play things a bit looser, unless you like washing all of your spoons every night. Double-dipping isn't a big concern unless you're ill, in which case you shouldn't really be cooking for people. You're probably introducing your friends and family to just as much contamination in the form of dust and such simply by having them in your home.

EDIT: I agree with Jefromi's point in comments, so I want to emphasize this further.

Safety aside, I strongly believe that tasting is necessary to make you a better cook. It teaches you how to make corrections on the fly and balance flavors, rather than simply following a recipe. As a matter of fact, even if you're following a recipe, you will need to account for variation in things like produce. Fruits vary in their flavor depending on how ripe they are, where they were grown, whether it was a good season... The vegetables that I get at my local market may be a slightly different variety from yours... Meats vary widely depending on how the animal is fed and raised, even if you're using the same cuts. Even when using packaged ingredients, you can't guarantee complete consistency unless you use the exact brand as written in a recipe. (And I dare say that if your recipes uses only packaged ingredients, you can do much better.) Recipes cannot account for this sort of variation in anything but the broadest strokes. It's up to you to balance all of this, plus the preferences of yourself and your guests. If you're only tasting when you've finished cooking, it's probably too late to correct any problems.

Like any skill, cooking ability is improved by practice and feedback. Tasting as you go provides you with immediate feedback on how the dish tastes and what it needs, rather than just at the very end when you sit down to eat. Learning how flavors interact, how much seasoning is enough, and so on are fundamentals. They're what help you get creative, go beyond cooking someone else's dishes, and start coming up with your own.

So: yes, you should taste, and you should taste often. There are many ways to deal with safety concerns, but there is no other way to get better at fixing your mistakes before they hit the table.

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Can't you make do with two spoons? Get stuff from the pot with one, pout onto the second, lick that one. Of course you'd have to keep track of which is which, and get the first one clean in another way. –  Raphael Aug 1 at 6:52
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@Raphael Can you? Sure, but this was a busy environment. Transferring contents between spoons would be slower and more delicate, in addition to the problems you identify. We were going through hundreds of pieces of silverware for guests anyway, so a few extra from the kitchen wasn't a problem. At home, I just use one spoon and keep it clean with my mouth. –  logophobe Aug 1 at 13:19

Yes, chefs and cooks taste the food they prepare; even an experienced chef will do this, mostly to check seasoning (salt, pepper, etc.). However, most experienced cooks will taste less and will know how to tweak the preparation without having to constantly taste and re-taste.

Cooks usually use spoons - tons of spoons - to taste food when they prepare it. They use 1 spoon for each taste they do; there are also different variations on the technique to minimize the waste.

In most TV food shows, it is understood that it is not restaurant or commercial food preparation; it is more like preparing food at home.

Remember that most food is cooked, and that enough heat will kill most germs. (add all the disclaimers you want here)

At home, taste away...

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Easy way to minimize spoon count: Use one spoon as a tasting spoon, and another spoon to put whatever you're tasting onto your tasting spoon. This way, you only get one spoon in touch with yourself, and can give the other one a quick rinse. Or use whatever your stiring with to put your food onto your tasting spoon. –  SBI Aug 2 at 17:21
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Boiling water (or the equivalent 100 C temp) will kill all germs, since they are single celled life forms filed with water. cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/travel/… –  goldilocks Aug 3 at 18:24
    
@goldilocks see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermophile –  msh210 Aug 4 at 5:35
    
@msh210 Cool -- but you won't find those on people or in food. Also, they still can't survive above the boiling point: the ones that exist above the normal boiling point (100 C) exist in deep sea high pressure environments -- pressure increases the boiling point. You could get 'em with a pressure cooker ;) –  goldilocks Aug 4 at 11:00

Certainly cooks should taste their food as they go, especially if they're making something they haven't made many times before.

"Double-dipping" is common (even in commercial kitchens). It's the kind of thing a lot of people do, but no one wants to get caught doing it.

This question is related: Food safety when tasting from dish, and you might find the answers and comments illuminating.

At home, personally I see no harm in the cook double-dipping. I've never worried about it when cooking for family or close friends. Of course you shouldn't cook for anyone if you're sick or think you're getting sick. That's actually a bigger concern to me in professional kitchens than a presumably healthy cook double-dipping.

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I feel safe doing that with pots of boiling liquids like soups... something like salsa or guacamole, that aren't cooked, seems like a risk for microbial contamination. –  JAL Aug 3 at 21:15

Sorry that I can't comment as a guest, since this does not truly answer the question of whether to taste test or not.

One can reduce the number of spoons used to taste test by using a system of two spoons; one spoon goes into the dish while the other is tasted from. This way, after spooning from the first spoon to the second, the first can be put in the dish again without risk of contamination. To prevent flavours from mixing, you could keep one spoon to taste from and then have another spoon for each type of dish prepared.

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+1. This is how you do it. We always have personal tasting spoons when we cook. It also prevents enzymes in the saliva from affecting the food (could be important if you cook a big batch and intent to keep some for the next few days, i.e. bernaise sauce and such things..). –  Macke Aug 4 at 9:11

If you have sanitary concerns about taste-testing, you could do what I do:

  • Use the main spoon/utensil to transfer a small amount to a bowl/plate.
  • Use a second utensil (like a small spoon or fork) to taste from this bowl or plate.

This allows you to reuse your secondary tasting utensil without it ever touching your main utensil. If you're really concerned about contamination, just be careful to not touch your main utensil to your tasting utensil or bowl/plate.

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(This probably should be a comment but it's too long)

If you don't taste you can end up with something very wrong without knowing it:

My mother had allergy issues that kept her from tasting what she was preparing, she was also blind which meant the only labels she could read were the ones she put on things. One day she baked some oatmeal cookies. My father and I each tried one--completely inedible. The culprit: She had mixed up some food for baby birds with the oatmeal. They were in similar containers, they had similar textures.

She figured it out first and managed to gasp out "chick mash" before being overcome with laughter. I understood and was likewise overcome. My father didn't get it and was standing there trying to eat his cookie and asking us what was so funny--which of course made us laugh all the harder. It's been 30 years but I still chuckle at the memory.

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