It's happened to us all at one point or another: The dish you've cooked is too salty, too spicy or perhaps just too... meh. The key to correcting — and preventing — this is balance, when all the flavours of the dish work in harmony. Here's what you should know so you can make fantastic dishes, whether you're working with a recipe or just winging it.
The Science of Taste
As you might recall from your old grade school science class, our tongues are sensitive to basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Recently, the taste receptor for a fifth basic taste, umami (which means "savoury" or "meaty" in Japanese), was discovered by the University of Miami after being heralded in Japanese cooking for centuries. (Ayurvedic cooking also includes two other tastes: pungent, which is hot and spicy like a chilli pepper, and astringent, described as "dry and light as found in popcorn". The image above from WineFolly includes fat as something to consider when pairing food and wine.)
Anyway, the five primary tastes are the key to seasoning dishes well so your food tastes as good as it can. As Jeff potter writes in Cooking for Geeks:
When cooking, regardless of the recipe and technique, you always want to adjust and correct the primary tastes in a dish. There is just too much variability in any given product for a recipe to accurately prescribe how much of a taste modifier is necessary to achieve a balanced taste for most dishes: one apple might be sweeter than another, in which case you'll need to adjust the amount of sugar in your applesauce, and today's batch of fish might be slightly fresher than last week's, changing the amount of lemon juice you'll want. Because taste preferences vary among individuals, you can sometimes solve the balance problems by letting the diners adjust the taste themselves. This is why fish is so often served with a slice of lemon, why we have salt on the table (don't take offence at someone "disagreeing" with your "perfectly seasoned" entrée), and why tea and coffee are served with sugar on the side. Still, you can't serve a dish with every possible taste modifier, and you should adjust the seasonings so that it's generally pleasing.
When you don't adjust for the primary tastes, the flavours in the dish will be out of balance and your food may come out too salty, too bland and so on. What we're aiming for is the food equivalent of the perfect Bloody Mary — a cocktail which just happens to hit almost every human taste sensation except bitterness.
How to Get the Right Flavour Balance
The most important thing to do is taste as you go along (an important lesson learned by everyone who's ever watched Top Chef). Identify the most dominant flavour, and if it's too much, balance it out with the others. Let's look at each of the primary tastes and how they work with each other.
Salt not only brings out the flavours and aromas of other ingredients in a dish, it reduces bitterness. As The Kitchn explains, when we're "salting to taste", we're not really looking to make food more salty, but rather reduce the bitterness and get the other flavours to shine. Keep adding pinches of salt and taste:
Try to ignore the instinct to taste for saltiness — you don't actually want the dish to taste salty — and ask yourself how all the other flavours are coming through. "Does this soup still taste muddy or are the flavours bright? Can I taste the sweetness from the squash? Do the parsnips still taste bitter?"
Keep in mind that you can use things other than salt to add saltiness (and, conversely, be careful with adding too much of these ingredients): soy sauce, pickled vegetables, salted butter, hard cheeses, fish sauce, and bacon and other cured meats.
When to add more salt: If your food is too bitter or the flavours of the other ingredients don't seem to be coming through.
How to fix a too-salty dish: It's not foolproof, but you may be able to fix a too-salty dish. In sauces or soups, for example, you could add water to dilute the liquid or a potato to draw in the salty liquid. You could also try adding sugar or more food ingredients to the dish until it's balanced.
Bitterness is the taste humans are most sensitive to, and it's the reason why picky eaters don't like a lot of healthy foods like broccoli or brussels sprouts. Still, a touch of bitterness helps create balance. Bitter coffee, for example, is a great accompaniment to dessert, but you can also add coffee as an ingredient to some dishes. Anise, mustard, spinach, and even beer can add bitterness too.
When to add more bitter ingredients: If the dish is too sweet or feels too rich, bitter ingredients such as grapefruit or dark greens can cut those down.
How to fix a too-bitter dish: Add more salt, as noted above, or sugar.
Like salt, sweet ingredients (sugar, fruits, and even carrots) can bring out the flavours in other ingredients. Honey, for example, goes well in fruit pies (I like using green apples for baking, since their sourness keeps the desserts from being too sweet.) Sweet ingredients can also subtly help round out a dish that's high on the savory side.
When to add more sweetness: If the dish tastes too sour or bitter.
How to fix a too-sweet dish: Add a bit of sourness, such as a splash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon. Don't, however, use salt, because it might actually heighten the sweetness.
Sour foods like vinegar and citrus fruit brighten a dish and can give it the "oomph" it was previously lacking. Think: A splash of lime on an avocado or guacamole. Even tomatoes and many berries can add the sourness needed to perk up a dish.
When to add more sourness: If the dish tastes too bland, too sweet or too spicy, such as too much kick from a hot pepper.
How to fix a too-sour dish: Add sweetness or, for vegetables, try roasting or grilling them. (The heat cuts some of the bitterness).
Side note: If you're confused about the difference between bitter and sour, you're not alone. Bitterness is more of a harsh, unpleasant taste, while sourness is more acrid. Home Barista member wookie says you can train your palate to notice the subtle differences better:
As a start, you could take a grapefruit and taste it. The grapefruit will be sour. Now try a small piece of the rind, which will be bitter. Try this several times and notice the difference. Here are a few other sour & bitter foods.
sour: grapefruit, lemon, lime, sour-flavoured candy, fermented dairy products
bitter: citrus peel, unsweetened chocolate, uncured olives, dandelion greens
Umami is that savoury taste that occurs naturally in foods like oyster, cheese, green tea and tomatoes. You can really ramp up the flavour of your dishes by pairing foods with their complementary, umami-rich ingredients. As we've mentioned previously when talking about the science of cooking, having an "umami bomb" (such as anchovies, soy sauce or marmite) at the ready can add more savoury flavour to just about any food.
When to add more umami: When the dish is balanced in the other tastes but still just seems to be lacking something.
How to fix a too-savoury dish: Too much umami can obliterate the other flavours in the dish and create tastes kind of like you get from cheap snack foods. If you've added too many ingredients known to be umami-rich, try adding other ingredients so the tastes are more proportional.
The chart in this section, by the way, is part of an illustration by Anne Ulku on tastes and where those flavours originated. Check out the infographic for more foods for each of the primary tastes (umami's not there, but spicy is).
Look for the Low, Middle and High Notes
Think about using ingredients so they cover all the flavour bases. The Kitchn writes that chefs break tastes down into flavour profiles of "notes":
Low Notes: These are the deep lingering flavours in foods that form the base or the backdrop for other flavours. Think earthy and umami.
These are flavours like mushrooms, seared meat,= and beans.
Mid Notes: Flavours in this range are much more subtle. They're not as immediately identifiable and don't hang around as long as the low and high notes.
Think raw vegetables and chicken. (And this is why those often taste bland and boring without any other flavours to fancy them up!)
High Notes: These flavours are the show stoppers. They fizz and zing and dance in your mouth.
This is the splash of citrus, the handful of fresh herbs and the minced hot peppers.
You can cook — recipe-free — by thinking of creating layers of these notes and how the components work together to create a rounded or full dish. Also, consider all the dishes and drinks in a meal as playing off each other too: saltines with a sweet and sour soup, for example.
One last tip is to look for foods that pair especially well together. Here are some previously mentioned resources to explore further and help you create balanced dishes that sing: