A few years ago, I was dining at a French restaurant. I ordered one of my favorites – a crock of French onion soup topped with a big crouton and Gruyere cheese. When it arrived, I eagerly dug in, only to find that something was extremely off about the taste. It was way too sweet!
French onion soup is full of caramelized onions, which are cooked properly when they reach an even balance of sweetness and bitterness.
Someone had definitely taken the onions off the heat too soon. It tasted like dessert onion soup. No thank you.
At some point or another, we all bite into a dish that tastes off. Sometimes the reason is extremely obvious; other times it's harder to pinpoint the cause. We just know something doesn't taste right, or perhaps it simply tastes boring.
When you're trying to prepare food from scratch at home and run into this issue, it can be very frustrating. More often than not, the key to correcting (and preventing) a dish that misses the mark is finding a harmonious flavor balance.
Learning to balance flavors is a skill that you will develop through practice. You can read descriptions about sweet versus sour, but like learning a musical instrument, it won't make a difference until you begin practicing. It's a simple skill to develop as you cook. Taste ingredients while you're cooking to try to detect and isolate the different flavor components, and figure out what might be lacking. Before finishing a dish, taste it again and see if it needs anything.
That's truly what this is all about. It's known as developing your palate. The more you work on developing your palate, the more pronounced different flavors will become, making it easier to intuitively know what to adjust.
The five tastes
Shoutout to my fellow dessert lovers and sugar addicts out there! We are programmed to love sweetness; it releases endorphins in our brains. It's also a very powerful taste to master in the kitchen.
Too much or too little can kill a dessert. But sweetness also plays an important role in savory dishes. The best dishes have a balance of sweet and savory. (This is why salted desserts are popular.) Sometimes adding a touch of sweetness to chili – or any stew – is a perfect way to brighten the other flavors.
How to balance too much sweetness: Add a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon. Avoid adding salt since that could enhance the sweetness.
When to add more sweetness: If a dish is overly bitter, and you want to take the edge off.
More sweet ingredients: Maple syrup, light agave nectar, fruits (especially berries)
Salt is an amazing ingredient when it comes to enhancing recipes. When we season with salt, the goal is never to make things “salty,” but to coax out all of the other flavors in the dish.
Our taste buds adapt to enjoy more or less salt depending on how much we consume, which is why many recipes recommend salting to taste. It often truly is a personal preference, but that doesn't make “to taste” instructions any less frustrating when you're trying to learn how to cook.
As you taste recipes, ask yourself whether you can identify the unique ingredients and their flavors. Can you taste the sweetness of the strawberries? The sourness/acidity of the lemon?
Adding just a pinch of salt is sometimes all that's needed to brighten up the flavors and aromas in a recipe. Remember that it's easier to add than to subtract, so go slowly. And keep tasting your recipe as you season it.
How to balance too much saltiness: Try adding a pinch of sugar or a drop of honey. If that doesn't work, you may need to dilute your recipe by adding more of the other (non-salty) ingredients to counter the saltiness.
When to add more salt: If a recipe is bland or slightly bitter. But again, add slowly, “to taste.”
More salty ingredients: Anchovies, olives, soy sauce
Humans are hard-wired to have a sensitivity to bitterness, and in large amounts, the flavor can be unpleasant. However, just the right level of bitterness adds interest and balance to other dishes, especially sweet ones.
A great example is chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate is often more pleasing because the bitterness complements the chocolate's sweetness. On the other hand, semi-sweet or milk chocolate can sometimes be cloying because there isn't that bitter contrast. Coffee, another bitter ingredient, pairs wonderfully with chocolate for the same reason; the flavors complement and enhance each other.
How to balance too much bitterness: Add some salt. While salt will enhance sweet, sour and umami, it can actually cut the intensity of bitterness.
When to add more bitterness: If a dish is too sweet.
More bitter ingredients: Arugula, mustard, walnuts
The mouth-puckering sensation we associate with lemons is created by a sour taste, also known as acidity. A teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice can quickly brighten and give life to a bland dish.
Homemade lemonade is a great example of a balanced drink. Too much fresh lemon or sugar will ruin it. It needs the right balance of both.
How to balance too much sourness: Try adding sweetness.
When to add more sourness/acidity: If a dish is bland.
More sour ingredients: Cranberries, buttermilk, sour cream
Umami is a savory taste that occurs naturally in certain amino acid-rich foods, such as aged cheeses, mushrooms and soy sauce. It's a great way to ramp up the flavor of your savory dishes.
How to balance too much umami: Since your dish might still be otherwise balanced, you can try increasing any neutral-flavored ingredients in the dish (vegetables, etc).
When to add more umami: If a savory dish needs more intensity.
More umami ingredients: Cooked tomatoes, fish sauce, cured meats
It can be a little daunting when you're first starting out with spices, but they're a wonderful tool to have in your kitchen arsenal. Spices (and herbs) give aroma, flavor and color to food.
Much like learning to balance flavors, the best way to become acquainted with spices is simply to start using them – and remember to taste as you go. There's no need to stock your entire spice cabinet all at once. That's overwhelming and often leads to spices getting stale and going to waste. Work with a few spices at a time and experiment to see what pairs well together.
Spice blends that you purchase at the store can usually be prepared at home, and it's a good exercise for learning pairings. One of my favorite versatile blends to get you started is below.
Homemade Cajun Seasoning
(Makes about 1 cup)
11/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon garlic powder (granulated garlic)
1 tablespoon onion powder
3 tablespoons mild or sweet paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
11/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
Use a fork or whisk to blend the spices, salt and peppers in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to six months.
Suggested uses: Use as a spice rub on salmon or chicken before grilling, mix with freshly cooked corn, add to egg salad, and try in my baked sweet potatoes recipe below.
Loaded Baked Sweet Potatoes With Cajun Seasoning
4 (12-ounce) medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed well
1/2 cup sour cream
21/4 teaspoons Homemade Cajun Seasoning, or more as needed (see recipe above)
1 (14.5-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 medium red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped (1 cup)
11/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 or 4 fresh chives, finely chopped (4 teaspoons)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Place the sweet potatoes on the sheet. Use a fork to prick the sweet potatoes in several places; this helps to release steam.
Roast for 45 minutes to an hour, or until they are soft.
Whisk together the sour cream and 11/2 teaspoons of the Cajun seasoning in a medium bowl. Combine the black beans, red bell pepper, oil and remaining 3/4 teaspoon Cajun seasoning in a separate, microwave-safe bowl. Taste; add more Cajun seasoning, as needed.
Warm the black bean mixture in the microwave on high for approximately 60 to 90 seconds, stirring halfway through. (Alternatively, you can warm the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat).
To serve, place a sweet potato on each plate. Cut each one in half lengthwise, opening the slit enough to expose some of the flesh. Top each one with one-quarter of the black bean mixture, a generous dollop of the Cajun-spiced sour cream and 1 teaspoon of the chives.
Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.