Balance is key: in life as in cooking. A harmony of flavors can make all the difference in a meal. Ever had a soup that was too salty or a sauce that was too sweet? One component can throw off the entire dish. You may be disappointed by the result or confused as to what to do next (we’ve all been there), but before you throw it out and start all over, there are ways to redeem a meal. Like I said, it’s all about balance. Whether the dish (or ingredient) is overly bitter, spicy, salty, or sweet, a couple tweaks can reap big improvements.
Those bitter greens you want to get onto your plate can taste incredibly flavorful with the right additions. Adding something sweet (like sautéed onions) or sour (lemon juice) can help minimize the bitterness. Fat can also help (ever notice how traditionally, fatty pieces of meat have been added to greens?). A tab of butter or a drizzle of olive oil is sometimes all it takes. Salt can also play a role, and bacon with greens is a classic way to add salt and fat to offset bitterness. Talk about a harmony of flavors.
A little too much heat went in the dish? Don’t worry there are a few ways to fix it. Dairy can neutralize it quickly. The casein in dairy helps break down the chemical compounds that give ingredients, like chile peppers heat. Cream, yogurt, cheese, or a sauce made from those dairy products will do the trick (now you know why your burrito comes with sour cream). Fat can help as well. Try adding a spoonful or two of creamy nut or seed butter to a sauce or stew to cool it down. Acid can come in handy as well; whether you choose the standards like citrus or vinegar, or acidic fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes or pickled veggies, a small amount of acidity may be all you need. Feel free to mix some of these to make a creamy lime dressing or a tomato chutney next time you need to cool down a meal.
Acid can counteract the sweetness in a dish. A squeeze of lime or a splash of vinegar can rescue an overly sweet recipe. Salt is another method to use as it can work to mask the sugariness in a recipe. If you realize you added a little too much honey to your stir-fry try adding a splash or two of rice wine vinegar. If you want a milder flavor to your roasted carrots, squeeze some lemon juice over them. If dessert took a turn for the worst a pinch (or two) of salt can save it.
Tart and sweet can balance saltiness in almost any dish. The acidity in ingredients like citrus fruits and vinegars can cut through the saltiness to deliver a more balanced, palatable dish. If you went heavy-handed with the salt while seasoning a soup (happens to the best of us) finish it off with drizzle of apple cider vinegar or serve with a wedge of lime. Not only will it cut through the salt, but add brightness as well (just another way to bring more flavor to a recipe). Another trick is to add sugar to salty liquids, like sauces. A couple of teaspoons of honey or brown sugar should do the trick. And don’t forget cream’s ability mellow out a salty dish. The subtle sweetness of dairy can work nicely in a sauce or soup. Turn salty tomato soup into a creamy, velvety cup of goodness with just a few glugs of heavy cream or half and half.