How to Know What Tastes Good With What/Cooking by Smell
A couple of days ago, a young lady about eight years old showed me a spice jar and asked me how I know what foods to use it on.
Instead of telling her what I do use it on, I decided to answer the larger question she didn’t know she was asking. Maybe I was grooming a future cook, after all.
I told her that when I’m making a decision about seasoning what I’m cooking, I do it by smell. I pick a few spices that seem promising and line them up next to the dish I’m making. I get close to the pan or bowl I’m cooking in and take a big sniff, then immediately smell the contents of one of the spice jars. I probably go back and forth a couple of times. I repeat the process with other spices till my brain tells me I’ve found the right flavor for the dish.
Then I told her this: You already know what tastes good with what. You may be very surprised how smart your senses are, even when you feel you know very little about cooking. Rather than picking random spices, let your nose guide you; it won’t lead you wrong. I think it may be kind of like our innate understanding of when two music notes mixing together in our ear are in harmony and when they are absolutely not.
Your nose will serve you equally well, but you do have to smell the things together, or as together as you can make them without actually mixing them. By having one aroma still tickling your nose when you add the second smell, they’ll blend together just enough to tell you what tastes good with what. Go back and forth from soup to seasoning jar until you get a good sense of the blend, or lack thereof.
It works when deciding whether to add soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, or wine (or red or white). Smell the pot, then smell the condiment, then smell the pot again. Add to your pot whatever smelled “right”. You can test this by trying it with something you are pretty sure won’t work—like parsley or dry mustard and an open jar of applesauce. Notice your own reaction. Then try smelling the applesauce again, alongside something that might work—like cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves—and notice how your brain reacts. Trust what it tells you. If you have chicken breasts with mustard or salmon with lemon juice, start choosing jars from your spice cabinet based on intuition, best guess, or whim, then do the back and forth smell test till your nose decides the best complimentary seasoning. It really does work. This is how you cook without a recipe telling you what to use. And you may come up with some new and wonderful flavor combinations that you can share with friends who cook.
The best way to decide how much of something to use is to taste as you go. That’s such a simple and obvious thing that we sometimes forget how important it is. Tasting is the only way to know when the flavors balance, which means each flavor can be tasted in a way your taste buds approve of.
Here’s the bottom line: If you have a sense of smell, you already have a trustworthy guide for cooking creatively. I call it “cooking by smell”. If you want to join the ranks of people who call themselves cooks, just follow your nose.
NOTE: If you have a dish that should be complete but seems to be missing something, read “Turning Bland into Brilliant”.