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😣 Doesn’t taste right? Here’s how to fix it.

published8 months ago
4 min read

A Balancing Act: The 7 Elements of Taste

Recipes are guidelines, not exact formulas. You can follow a recipe perfectly and get a different result than the recipe creator. From ingredients varying in taste to using another type of salt, there are many factors at play!

That’s why you have to use your taste buds to be able to adjust or create a recipe on the fly.

I’m here to help. There are 7 elements of taste that impact how we enjoy food: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, fat, and spicy.

Just to clarify, these elements of taste are different from flavor.

While some of these elements have flavorless forms (think kosher salt or white sugar), sources of each will have their own flavor profiles. For example, soy sauce tastes different than Parmigiano cheese, but both bring saltiness. Fish sauce and mushrooms both add umami, but their flavors are quite different. Lemon and lime juice are great ways to add acid. But lemon is subtle and floral, lime is pungent and green.

Following?

So whether your tomatoes aren’t as sweet as they were last week, you accidentally charred your Brussels sprouts a little too much, or they only have serranos instead of jalapenos, you’ve got to be able to adjust these 7 elements to create a well-balanced dish.

Let’s break down each element of taste!

From The Art of Flavor, Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel describe these 7 elements as “Tools to shape, accentuate, and modulate flavor”.

Salt

Salt enhances flavor and aromas around it. While the perfect level of salt is subjective, you need enough to bring out the flavor of ingredients you're cooking with.

Sources: kosher salt, anchovies, olives, Parmiggiano, feta, soy sauce, miso, etc.

Concepts to know:

  • Salt will counteract sweetness. Think about how salted caramel isn’t overly sweet. As they say in the Art of Flavor, salt “pushes down sweetness”.
  • Use it to amplify sour in the same way salt makes a margarita tangier.
  • It can tame bitterness—a sprinkle mellows out eggplant, broccoli rabe, or radicchio.

⚠️ Did it turn out too salty? Try to dilute the food by adding more—more tomatoes to a sauce, more veggies to a soup, or extra leaves to a salad. You can also amp up the sweetness or acidity to mask some of the saltiness.

Click here to get nerdy about salt with me!

Sweet

Sweetness creates depth and also brings out other flavors, especially in desserts.

Sources: honey, maple syrup, caramelized vegetables, carrots, beets, etc.

Concepts to know:

  • Add sweetness when a dish tastes a little hollow or disconnected. By balancing other elements, sweetness creates a more full, substantial, and rich flavor.
  • Use sugar to make sweet ingredients taste more like themselves–think about how macerating berries in sugar makes them taste more like berries.
  • Use it to mellow salt, sour, and bitter flavors.

⚠️ Too much sweetness and a dish can turn overly heavy! Use it wisely!

Sour

Sourness (aka acidity) is often the perfect contrasting element to heavy or bland dishes. It adds that brightness and “oomph”!

Sources: red wine vinegar, citrus juice, goat cheese, crème fraîche, buttermilk, pickles, wine, sorrel, sumac, sour cherries, etc.

Concepts to know:

  • Use sourness to balance out a fatty piece of meat or a rich sauce.
  • When flavors seem muddy or bland, you might reach for salt but try adding acid too! That brightness will awaken the flavors that are already there.
  • Can be used to tone down saltiness, sweetness, and bitterness.
  • Also, consider subtle forms of acid like crème fraîche or a fermented condiment like mustard or hot sauce.
  • Remember, sweet and sour go beautifully together! So go make that strawberry rhubarb pie! 🥧

Bitter

While evolutionarily used to help us avoid poisonous food, mild amounts of bitterness give a dish complexity when it might otherwise taste boring or bland.

Sources: bitter greens, eggplants, charred vegetables, coffee, tea, etc.

Concepts to know:

  • Using bitter ingredients is a great way to counteract sweet ingredients–think of a shot of espresso in a chocolate cake.
  • If something tastes too bitter, you might think you should add sweetness. Which helps. But also try adding salt. It mellows it out!
  • Adding more acid or fat can also help balance bitterness.

Umami

Umami is one of the newer qualities of flavor discovered by scientists. It’s mostly about the intensity and concentration of flavors. Interestingly, in addition to coming from “raw” ingredients, you can also create umami through cooking. The Maillard reaction, where you brown ingredients over high heat, creates new molecules, among which are elements of umami!

Sources: tomato paste, soy sauce, mushrooms, miso, aged cheeses, seared meats, etc.

Concepts to know:

  • Add umami-rich ingredients to add more depth to a dish that feels too light.
  • Amplify the amount of umami that comes through by adding salt.

⚠️ Too much umami can make a dish overwhelming or overly intense. In fact, if a part of the dish is too high in umami, it can completely bury other flavors and ingredients around it.

You can mellow umami by turning to acid or diluting the dish.

Fat

Fat is a wonderful vehicle for flavor. It picks up flavor around it and carries it throughout the dish while enriching it.

Sources: oil, butter, animal fat, avocado, cream, cheese, almonds, pine nuts, etc.

  • Use fat to add body and richness when a dish tastes too thin or weak.
  • Add spices and herbs directly to fat to enhance their flavor. Learn about fat’s impact on spices and herbs.
  • Fat balances sour, so add some if you were a bit heavy-handed on the vinegar.
  • Use it to temper a dish right before serving when it tastes overly salty, bitter, or spicy.

⚠️ Too much fat will cover up flavors around it. So you may need to aggressively season fatty foods!

Spicy

Like bitterness or umami, spiciness adds complexity but in a more dynamic way. I love this quote from The Art of Flavor: “[Spiciness] can invigorate bland foods, alleviate richness, and bring excitement to otherwise homogeneous combinations.”

Sources: chiles, peppers, and hot sauces of course but also ginger, horseradish, mustard, etc.

  • Add a bit of spice when a dish tastes boring. Like acidity, it will enliven and energize other flavors.
  • When you don’t feel like you can taste the spices in a dish, add some heat to bring out their flavor.
  • Use spiciness as a way to cut through overly rich soups, sauces, braises, etc. It will create more balance.

⚠️ Be careful not to go overboard! 🥵 If it turns a little too spicy, add sweet, sour, or fat elements to counteract the burn.

Where I learned this: Mostly The Art of Flavor by Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel. But also Flavor by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage.


I hope this serves as a good reference for you moving forward. If you want to bookmark it for the future, you can also bookmark this article on the Salt Sear Savor blog. Every newsletter issue I write is reposted there!

Catch you next week!

Luciano 👨‍🍳