How to Taste—and Adjust—Any Dish Like a Pro
Is the recipe too salty, sweet, or spicy? Here’s how to fix it.
Let's say you’re making dinner for some guests (or maybe just yourself) and you decided to try out a new recipe for French Onion Soup. You’re sure it’s going to be a hit with your dinner guests—after all, who doesn't love toasty, cheese-covered bread floating in a warm rich broth? You ladle the soup into bowls, pour some wine, and sit down to enjoy it all.
After the first spoonful, you stop. You’re horrified. The soup is totally bland. The broth is more like water and the caramelized onions, which should be deeply flavorful and sweet, are more like wet noodles. Then, you realize your mistake.
You followed the recipe, but you never tasted your soup—not even once—before serving it to your guests.
If you’d tasted the onions after you caramelized them, you probably would have let them cook longer. And if you’d actually tasted your soup at all, you’d have realized that you didn't add enough salt. You might have even garnished it with additional fresh herbs to give it extra zing.
We all make mistakes, especially when it comes to cooking. But tasting a dish throughout its various stages—and making adjustments as needed—can help you save any dish before it reaches the dinner table.
With practice, a little patience, and a basic understanding of how flavors work in general, you’ll be on your way to tasting food like a pro and tweaking your dishes to perfection. Our handy guide has everything you need to get started, including a breakdown of different types of flavors and how to fix food that’s too salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or bland.
Different Types of Flavors
When tasting your food, consider the five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Every food or beverage you consume relies on one—or a combination—of these tastes. For example, a pineapple tastes sweet, while arugula tastes bitter. On the other hand, pickles are salty-sweet, dark chocolate is bittersweet, and olives are bitter-salty.
To better explain these basic flavors, let’s look at common ingredients that characterize them. Some are more obvious than others—and you’ll want to keep at least several ingredients from each category on hand so you can easily craft a perfectly-balanced, delicious meal.
Salty: Salt (Kosher salt, sea salt, Maldon salt)
Sweet: Sugar, honey, maple syrup, bananas, berries, pineapples, mangoes, dates, figs, sweet potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, caramelized onions, sugar snap peas, corn, basil, tarragon
Sour: Fresh lemon or lime juice, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, buttermilk, pickles, tart apples, blackberries, cranberries
Bitter: Kale, arugula, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, coffee, citrus zest, turmeric, walnuts
Umami (a blend of savory and salty): Anchovies, cheese, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, potatoes, truffles, nuts, olives, beef, pork, bacon, chicken, animal and vegetable stock, oysters, nori (dried seaweed), tomato sauce, fish sauce, miso paste
On top of these basic tastes, there are other sensations that can enhance your food such as spicy (anything from fiery chiles to nose-clearing horseradish), crunchy (breadcrumbs, toasted nuts, and croutons), and even temperature (whether an ingredient is hot or cold). Fresh herbs and spices, on the other hand, are a bit more complex—mint is cooling and sweet, fresh ginger is spicy and a touch sour, while rosemary is earthy and pungent.
How to Balance Flavors in Food
To best explain how flavors can work to balance food, let’s look at these common flavor mishaps—and how you can best fix them. Here's what to do if your recipe is...
The Fix: If you overdo umami-packed ingredients like cheese or meat in a dish, all is not lost. Brighten up overly rich dishes by adding something sweet or sour. Try adding fresh lime or lemon juice, a splash of vinegar (such as apple cider vinegar), sour condiments such as pickles or sauerkraut, and sweet-flavored herbs such as cilantro and basil.
The Fix: The first question—have you added salt to your food yet? If yes—and it still tastes bland, don’t give up. A sprinkle of finishing salt (such as Maldon), fresh herbs, chopped toasted nuts, and if it makes sense—salty cheese such as Parmesan or feta or a drizzle of spicy Sriracha sauce can add plenty of flavor to an otherwise sad dish.
The Fix: If your tacos or curry dish is fiery hot, you can quell the flames by pairing them with something sour, sweet, or neutral-flavored. Try squeezing fresh citrus juice or adding a dollop of yogurt over your food. If that doesn’t work, try incorporating bland ingredients such as cucumber, lettuce, or white rice.
The Fix: Salting to taste—or adding salt in small increments, then checking the flavor—will help prevent a dish from becoming too salty. However, if you ever end up with an overly-salted soup or pasta sauce, here’s what you can do to fix it. Adding something sweet (such as a pinch of sugar) or sour (such as a splash of citrus juice or vinegar) may downplay the saltiness. If it's a soup or a stew, you can try to neutralize the flavor by adding water or unsalted stock, but keep in mind that this may also affect the consistency of the dish.
The Fix: Overly sour foods can make you pucker and wince—but combining them with sweet, salty, and bitter ingredients can soften these effects. Tart apple pie is delicious with a drizzle of salted caramel sauce, while a sour-flavored cheese (such as goat cheese) gets a lift from fruit preserves. Rhubarb, which is pretty sour on its own, pairs well with sweeter fruits such as strawberries and also with savory foods such as roast lamb.
The Fix: Balance bitter flavors by introducing something salty, sweet, or sour. For naturally bitter foods such as kale, you can soften the flavor by add a lemony vinaigrette, Parmesan cheese, and pomegranate seeds. You can also elevate kale by tossing it olive oil and salt, then roasting it in the oven until crispy.
The Fix: Tone down an overly sweet dish by adding a sour, salty, or bitter ingredient to it. Sour fruit (such as blackberries or cherries), cooling herbs such as mint, and chopped nuts work well in sweets such as cakes, cookies, and pies. Something tangy, such as cream cheese (think cheesecake) or a dollop of creme fraiche can also balance sweetness in desserts.
So, the next time you’re making soup, salad dressing, pasta sauce, or even just a basic sandwich, keep this handy flavor guide close. Taste your food as you go, consider every flavor and texture involved, and ask yourself what ingredients your dish needs to be as delicious as possible.
When it comes to understanding how to properly taste and adjust flavors in your food, cooking more is the best step you can take. Learn from recipes that exemplify balance (such as our crunchy, creamy, tangy, sweet, salty, and pleasantly bitter All The Green Things Salad), close the cookbook, and let your senses take over.