Chefs seem to use these two terms interchangeably: seasoning and flavoring. The actual difference can be quite subtle, so why not just use one word? Can you both season and flavor a dish? The answer is yes.
We often think of seasonings as spices and herbs added to food. However, depending on their intended use and effect, these may be more appropriately called flavors.
What is a Seasoning?
The only ingredient that we think of as a seasoning most of the time is salt. When properly used, salt is not intended to actually change the flavor of a food, but simply to bring out the flavor or enhance it. When, however, so much salt is used that the food intentionally tastes salty, salt has become a flavoring.
So, for example, when you add salt to a pot of soup, it is a seasoning. The salt on the outside of pretzels, however, is a flavoring. Another example of salt being used as a flavoring is salted caramel. You are meant to taste the salt as a distinct flavor.
Therefore, a loose definition of a seasoning would be any agent added to food to enhance the flavor without significantly changing it. It is possible, then, to use other ingredients besides salt as seasonings. Many recipes, for example, call for the tiniest dash of nutmeg. So little nutmeg is used that you will not actually register it as a unique flavor, as when it is added to a white sauce, but it does enhance the flavor. So, a seasoning is a flavor enhancer rather than a flavoring.
Another example may be adding an “acid” to a dish. If you add just a touch of lemon or another acid to a dish just for balance (many dishes will benefit from the last minute addition of an acid ingredient), then you are really just seasoning the dish, not flavoring it, as it is not your intention to make the dish taste significantly of lemon, vinegar, etc. As such, alternative acid ingredients could probably be used with success.
What are Flavorings?
A flavoring, on the other hand, is an ingredient that significantly changes the flavor of a food or dish. Many other ingredients besides herbs and spices are flavoring ingredients. One flavoring ingredient that is most often used, for example, is onion or other alliums (garlic, shallots, leeks, chives).
There is no need to think of flavoring ingredients as just a handful of aromatic vegetables and spices, however. Many ingredients that we do not commonly think of as flavorings are used in this way. Why do Southern folks put bacon or ham hocks in everything? Flavoring! Bacon, ham, sausages, and other salty or smoked meats are often used as flavoring ingredients. Another common flavoring ingredient is alcohol: wine, brandy, cognac, and beer are commonly used in cooking.
Most seasonings are added at the end of the cooking process. This is what is meant by “check for seasoning.” You are supposed to taste the dish and adjust it for seasoning, and usually, this means a touch of salt, but it also may mean something like the aforementioned acid, or other ingredients. This does not mean that seasonings are only added at the end. Obviously, we may add salt at the beginning and end of cooking. Salt may take some time to dissolve and incorporate. But the final moments before serving are the most important for “seasoning a dish.”
Flavoring ingredients are added at any time during cooking. Timing can be very important as different ingredients need time to release their flavors, but if cooked too long, flavor can be lost. The flavors of herbs and spices often depend on volatile oils. These can actually evaporate during cooking, so that if you add, for instance, fresh herbs to a dish too early in the cooking process, their flavor will be significantly dampened, lost, muddied, or even damaged by prolonged cooking. Dried herbs generally need a bit longer to release their flavors. Sometimes, you might add a flavoring ingredient early in the cooking process and then add more of it toward the end, to bring out the flavor as needed.
Recipes are developed so that ingredients are added at the proper time, to ensure that they have enough cooking time to release their flavor into the food, but not so much that significant flavor is lost.
Signature Flavoring Combinations
In most cuisines, there are combinations of ingredients that are commonly used together as a flavoring combo. The mirepoix of French cooking is one such flavoring combination and sofrito is another. There are also various spice mixtures, or spice and aromatics mixtures such as Garam masala, Chinese Five Spice, and the various Thai curry pastes used so often that they are thought of as single ingredients.
Many countries have traditional or signature flavoring combinations. These are ingredients that are often used together to obtain a familiar flavoring profile. some examples are:
- Hungary: sour cream, paprika, caraway
- Italy: tomato, basil, olive oil or olive oil, garlic, anchovy
- India: ginger, onion, garlic
- Japan: soy sauce, sake (or mirin), dried bonito
One Secret for Great Flavor
Great cooks do not need to memorize flavor combinations. A great cook seeks out flavor opportunities. One way to do this is to identify an ingredient or flavor that is important in a certain dish, and reinforce that flavor or compliment it. For example, when I am making a simple tuna fish salad, I like to put in some chopped up dill pickles AND some pickle juice. Since I am using dill pickles, I also put in a little dill weed. Now I have reinforced both the sour pickle flavor while taking care of my vinegar component (you could also use lemon juice or another acid), and also reinforced the “dill” part of the formula. It is pretty simple when you think about it, and if you look at your cooking this way you will continually find simple ways to rev up the flavor of a simple dish.