I've been reading and watching content about cooking and when the instructor says, "liberally season with salt", I am left clueless as to how much I should apply. As a complete novice in cooking, I don't know how much is too much, or how little is too little. What do they mean by that ?
You're not alone in being confused. Here's a few "weasel phrases" that recipe authors use:
- "Liberally season"
- "Season to taste"
- "Season as required"
- "Add enough"
- "A bunch of"
- "A generous quantity"
In a lot of cases, what these phrases stand for is "I didn't bother to measure this". That means you, as the recipe reader, need to guess.
Salt, though, is kind of a special case. Depending on how much salt you're accustomed to eating, personal tastes vary a lot in terms of how much salt a dish needs. For example, I'm used to cooking for someone on a low-salt diet, so even when I cook for myself I tend to use 1/4 as much salt as, say, Chef John of Food Wishes does.
For that reason, "season to taste" when used to talk specifically about salt added, for flavor, towards the end of the recipe, really means "season to your taste". That is, if you like salt, use a lot; if you don't, use a little. Unfortunately, "a lot" or "a little" are still only meaningful in the context of the recipe. For example, 1tsp of salt is a lot if you're putting it into 1/2 cup of salad dressing, but it's very little if you're adding it to three liters of chili.
So, as a first time cook, my recommendation is to add a very small amount of salt when you first try the recipe, regardless of "liberally season". You can always add more salt at the table if you find it too bland, and next time you make it you'll know how much it needs.
"Liberally season with salt" means - "use more salt than you would usually think was enough".
Why anyone would advise that depends on factors unknown to us.
Here is an SE "Seasoned Advice" post on this topic.
Here is a comment on salt use with steak, including
- " ... While using large amounts of salt may cause some people to worry about drying their steak out too much, if you stick to the timing technique we’ve outlined above (one hour per inch of steak thickness) then isn’t anything to worry about. As such, you shouldn’t be afraid to rub enough salt on your steak to make a difference. Even when you’re using a lot of salt not all of it will be absorbed into the meat, and once you’ve washed the excess salt off post-sitting, you should have a flavour that is noticeable, elegant, and not overpowering. ..."
Here is a whole page on 'The Science of salt' - for Pasta they explain that liberal salting works special magic:
- " Pasta, rice, and potatoes Salting the water for boiling these starchy ingredients improves their flavor by allowing the salt to permeate the ingredients more deeply. Also, when dried pasta hits boiling water, starches on the surface of the noodles gelatinize and become sticky. Salt limits this starch gelation, so liberally salting pasta water reduces stickiness as it flavors the pasta."
This page has 3 "liberally with salt" references for poultry, steak and loin chops.
I agree with @FuzzyChef's good answer, I'm adding this answer to extend it, not contradict it. Sometimes salt should be added at the beginning of a recipe because:
- the salt needs time to work its way into an ingredient. Boiling potatoes comes to mind, if you don't salt the water your potatoes will be flavorless and no amount of salt after will make them taste right
- You need salt to draw out moisture. For example, when sauteing Zucchini (Courgette in some parts of the world) I always add some salt (a small pinch - I know, I know) to them as it speeds the cooking process some by drawing out water. This is by no means all the salt I will add but without it I will notice a difference in texture
In many cases, the right amount of salt varies significantly depending on the tastes of the people eating it.
If you have no idea what the right ballpark is, you can search online for other similar recipes that do list a specific amount of salt. (And compare it relative to quantities in the recipe you're making. e.g. look at tsp per cup of liquid for a soup or sauce, or per pound of meat.)
Turns out, I have next to zero hours of cooking, thus why I am a little afraid of messing up my first time.
Don't be afraid to make mistakes when cooking. Almost everyone who cooks makes various mistakes frequently!
Usually it's not a disaster, e.g. you can scrape off burned bits, or the texture might not be what you hoped for, but almost always it's still at least edible. As long as you can learn from your mistake and laugh about what happened, people generally don't mind mistakes when they know the cook personally. Cooking for friends / family is very much not a restaurant situation where people pay and expect flawless food from a chef they don't see.
For salt specifically, the only mistake you can't fix is way too much salt. A bit too much salt is edible (for most people), though.
You can't remove excess salt once its dissolved in liquid, and you can't counteract the flavour by masking it with other things. (For a soup or something you could dilute with more of all the other ingredients, but that could require a huge batch.)
As another answer pointed out, you can add more salt at the table, so err on the side of caution during cooking. It's generally healthier to eat less salt, and/or not develop a taste for lots of salt in the long run. If you regularly eat less salt your taste buds do learn to taste the amount you do use. The occasional more-salty dish isn't going to throw off that calibration, but it will taste noticeably salty.
For many dishes that are salted near the end, taste the dish with a teaspoon after mixing in some salt. (And/or other herbs / spices. If you like more thai red curry paste, taste and add more of that for example). Not applicable for dishes that involve raw meat or something, but you can taste some things before they cook or before some other ingredients are added. A lot of foods aren't supposed to taste particularly salty.
Opinions differ on whether it's optimal for flavour to have salt absorbed into food (like pasta for example) where it might take much more sodium for you to taste it, or if adding salt on the outside of your pasta is best. That's a minor difference - letting people add more at the table is totally fine any time you're not sure.
PS. I found Alton Brown's "Good Eats" TV series very valuable to learn about cooking. Knowing how food cooks, and some of the food science, makes a huge different. Knowing why a recipe works lets you know which parts are important and which parts are just a specific choice. If you know what to look for at various stages of making food, that makes you feel a lot more in control than just blindly following a recipe without having any idea what the steps are for. e.g. that heat breaks down some proteins or starches and other molecules in food, and why some food needs to be cooked a long time (like rice) vs. short time (lean meat) will give you something to think about while your food is actually cooking, which is a lot more fun.
Especially just knowing how meat cooks (and what happens when it overcooks) gives you an idea of what you're aiming for. So you can put meat back on the heat to get it cooked through if you stopped too soon. It's better if you can avoid cutting it to let juices out before it's cooked, but that's less bad than finding out that it's raw in the middle after plating it.
As a new cook, I guess caution is the answer. It’s always possible to add any seasoning bit by bit, and too much hot chilli or sage or whatever, including salt, can wreck a dish. And one person’s idea of liberal is very personal. As is the idea of a good pinch of oregano etc. Also, if when you’ve finished the dish, and you feel it lacks flavour, then a teaspoon or two of lemon juice can pep it up just as well as more salt. However, if you’re roasting potatoes, they do have a special taste if you’ve added some olive oil or lard (or whatever you’re fat of choice), and then less than an 1/8th teaspoon of salt per potato that measures 2” across. And don’t add spices and herbs - except for garnish, when the dish is cooked as they won’t have had time to add their flavour. If unsure, just add less than the recipe says, make a note of how much you’ve added and then see if it suits your taste and adjust the next time you make the recipe. I like full strong flavours so find I often add 50-100% more of a particular spice or herb. People who like milder flavours may use 2/3 or 1/2 of the recipes suggestion. It also depends what kind of salt you use. Sea salt is great but Pink Himalayan I find stronger and more flavoursome. Half the fun of learning to cook is experimenting. And if it doesn’t turn out as you intended, make a sauce and change the name! Happy cooking:-}