The culinary wizard behind the renowned French Laundry and Bouchon Bistro restaurants offers tips on how to improve dishes with the proper use of seasonings.
Photographs by Anne Cusak and Kirk McKoy Slideshow by Jenn Harris
Audio slideshow: Listen as Thomas Keller tells you how to prepare Meyer lemon-cured fillet of salmon.
There is no shortage of culinary advice floating around today — in books, on television and on the Internet — but I think there's good reason to be a bit skeptical of kitchen tips no matter their source. When you cook at home you answer to no one but yourself. Just because I choose to take one approach in my cooking doesn't mean it will necessarily work for you, but I'd like to think that there are a few recipes and techniques that can improve the food you prepare at home.
"Season with salt and pepper" is a common way to end a recipe (it's even something that I've written in my books), but as culinary advice it's a bit misleading. In the kitchen it's helpful to separate the concept of "seasoning" from that of "enhancing flavor." One is a way to add flavor to a dish, and the other is a way to intensify flavors without changing them, though we typically use the verb "season" to describe both processes. A true seasoning ingredient can be anything that brings a new flavor to what you're preparing; pepper, piment d'espelette and mustard are just a few seasonings that I like to use.
When you use salt to intensify flavor, though, it should be barely perceptible. Nevertheless it will have a profound impact on the flavor of the dish as a whole (it should taste better, but it shouldn't taste salty). In our kitchens, we do this by adding salt early in the preparation through the use of different types of brining: wet and dry.
In a wet brine, salt and other flavorings are dissolved in water and a piece of meat, such as a whole chicken, is submerged in the brine. Most animals are largely made up of water, so by submerging them in a brining liquid, we allow an equilibrium to develop between the salt in the brine and the salt in their natural juices. It gives us the ability to evenly distribute salt throughout the meat or fish at a level that enhances the flavor rather than overwhelming it. When you're working with a wet brine, salt and acid naturally work hand-in-hand to enhance flavor, a technique best exemplified by our poulet rôti at Bouchon Bistro.
Meyer lemon-cured salmon works somewhat differently, because there's no moisture involved. This is a dry brine, which is exactly what it sounds like: a mixture of flavor enhancers — typically based in a blend of salt and sugar — as well as other flavoring agents that are not dissolved in a liquid but rather applied directly to the meat. Dry brining has essentially the same mechanics as dry curing, it's just that our intentions for the end product are often different. While the dry brine enhances flavor by adding salt, it also creates a two-way street where the delicate albumin, a water-soluble protein, is drawn to a surface that is simultaneously dried out. So in addition to the flavor benefits we see an aesthetic improvement when the fish or meat is cooked: a beautiful, crisp brown crust.
Dry brining works hand-in-hand with another technique vital to our cooking: tempering. Tempering means we remove a piece of meat or fish from refrigeration prior to cooking it (the length of time depending on the size and cut but always with an eye to maintaining standards of food safety) and allow the temperature to both rise and equalize. By reducing the difference in temperature between center and surface we ensure even cooking. When working with meat or fish, you can dry brine and temper at the same time, simultaneously applying two methods that make for a better finished dish.
When it comes to brines, simple kosher salt is best. As cooks today we have access to a galaxy of different salts, but the benefits of other more expensive or exotic salts won't really shine in these preparations. Instead we treat those salts as condiments meant to add a finishing touch of flavor or texture.
Regardless of how it is applied, salt has numerous complex interactions with the proteins in a cut of meat or fish. In addition to the flavoring aspects we have already discussed, they act to denature some of the protein structure, changing it and improving texture and increasing retention of moisture in the cells. If you'd like to understand more about the chemistry behind these interactions, you cannot do better than my friend Harold McGee's incomparable reference "On Food and Cooking."
But you can reap the benefits of using brines in your kitchen at home without understanding the science behind them. You only need to know what flavors you like and have a willingness to apply these techniques to bring those flavors out.