Does when you add seasoning really impact how a dish tastes?
We know that most recipes (and culinary schools) advise seasoning food with salt early in the cooking process, not just at the end.
But say you forget to salt at the beginning of cooking. Will your food really taste that different than if you add it all at the end?
To answer this question, we conducted an experiment.
We prepared roasted carrots and beef stew two ways: We salted one batch of each dish early in the cooking, per their recipes. In the second batches, we withheld the salt until the end of cooking. We were surprised by just how drastically the batches differed.
HOW FOOD TASTES WHEN SEASONED EARLY
The carrots and stew that were salted early in the cooking were nicely seasoned and flavorful throughout. In the stew, the beef chunks in particular tasted more meaty and flavorful.
HOW FOOD TASTES WHEN SEASONED LATE
Meanwhile, the carrots and stew that were salted at the end of cooking with the exact same salt amounts were seasoned only on their exteriors and tasted far too salty. Even the gravy in the stew tasted too salty.
WHY SEASONING EARLY IS IMPORTANT
We know that salt penetrates food slowly when cold. (In a previous experiment, we found that it took a full 24 hours for salt to diffuse into the center of refrigerated raw turkey breasts.) While the process speeds up during cooking, it’s still not instantaneous. Adding salt at the beginning of cooking gives it time to migrate into the food, seasoning it throughout. Meanwhile, if you add salt only at the end, it provides a more concentrated, superficial coating that immediately hits your tongue.
BOTTOM LINE: ADD SALT EARLY (OR SALT LESS LATER)
For the most even seasoning and well-rounded flavor, we strongly encourage seasoning foods early in the cooking process.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU FORGET TO ADD SALT
If you forget to season at the start of cooking, do not make up for it by simply stirring in all the salt at the end.
Instead, start by seasoning with a very small amount of salt—about ¼ to ⅓ of the salt amount called for in the recipe—and then taste and season further as desired.
(On the plus side, if you are watching your salt intake, the delay could be helpful, since you'll be able to get away with less salt—though the dish as a whole won’t be as flavorful).