Seasoning food is the last vital step in the cooking process as any professional chef would attest to but which is a step often overlooked by the home cook who may have slaved away producing something for hours and then miss out this final step only feel cheated at how bland the results of their hard work were.
To season your food properly you must first learn to taste it and establish if it needs any seasoning at all. Sometimes none will be needed if the recipe was very accurate or the ingredients were well seasoned before hand.
The first step is to check for the salt level. If the food lacks a sense of flavour and has little salt add some and try again. The salt lifts the flavour and suddenly the dish transforms into something special. Taste, adjust and taste again until it is right. Be careful not to overdo the salt as it is difficult to adjust the salt down once too salty so if you are inexperienced just a little at a time.
In the West it is common to season most dishes with some freshly ground black pepper. A few cracks of the grinder is usually enough unless you want a strong pepper flavour.
Not all peppers and salts are equal. Salt comes granulated for pouring at the table, coarse and as flakes. Salt can even be sold in rock form. Sea salts and lava salts bring extra flavours of their own as well as the saltiness. Peppers can be milder or stronger and different varieties will bring other traces of spices like nutmeg into a dish.
Salts and Peppers are not the only additions to a dish to adjust the final flavours and really lift the dish. On the tongue we taste 5 main tastes which are salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. It is our nose which detects the 1000s of different aromatic compounds that make a dish amazing. The mouth and tongue do also detect other things such as temperature and texture, chilli and pepper heat, that strange feeling on the roof of your mouth when you eat a strong cheddar. So we can also season a dish to affect these other areas of taste and sensation as well.
Sweet seasoning. Not just for puddings sugar or sweeteners can be added to savoury dishes too. The amount will depend on the effect you wish to achieve but a little sugar in a tomato based sauce can reduce the sourness of the tomato without making the dish seem overly sweet. There are many sweeteners other than sugar most of which will also bring some extra flavours such as honey (1000s of varieties), syrups, treacle, molasses etc.
Bitter seasoning. Bitterness is usually an undesirable trait as it is evolution's way to help us avoid poison which is why it is hard to get kids to eat Brussell sprouts. However it can sometimes be desirable and can be added by the use bitter ales or stouts, pure dark chocolate, coffee, grapefruit, walnuts, some lettuces.
Sour seasoning. A little vinegar can often lift a dish. Other sour seasonings include citrus juices like lemon, wines, apple juice, pickles and many more.
Umami seasoning. Not well known until recently but now well established as a taste umami is difficult to define in words but "savouriness","meatiness" come to mind but it is more than just that. Umami receptors are stimulated by Glutamates which occur naturally in tomatoes (especially the seeds), mushrooms, aged cheeses (especially parmesan and similar Italian cheeses), Peas, anchovies. Fermentation, aging and drying processes in food production bring out this sought after flavour such as Parma hams, dried mushrooms,Soy sauce, fermented fish sauce, fermented beans, dried fish. Aged Parmesan is grated into risottos towards the end of cooking it brings umami, salt and richness all of which make the dish something amazing. MSG is available in granulatedc form to be added straight to any dish just to lift the savoury element. It has a bad press and lots of people seem to have a downer on it but it is safe and works very well and is cheap especially in comparison to an aged Parma ham or Parmesan.