How to Balance Flavors In Your Cooking

How to Bring Your Cooking From "Good" to "Great"

couple flavoring food
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My most successful dishes don't follow any recipe strictly. People ask me for recipes for my potluck dishes, but flavor balance is hard to get entirely by following a recipe. Especially when using fresh ingredients, as low-carb cooking almost always is, the ingredients are going to be a little different every time. Every tomato contributes a different blend of acid and sweetness. Every chile pepper has a different degree of heat.

Spices aren't the same from one bottle to another. So it seems that near the end of every recipe I want to instruct the cook to "balance the flavors". But how to do this? Here are some of my secrets.

In Thailand and some other Asian countries, balance is a key concept in preparing a dish or meal. There should ideally be a balance of flavors in each dish, and among the dishes on the table. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter are the main flavors, but aromatic and creamy elements have their place as well. A truly great dish balances these tastes to achieve a flavor that sings on the tongue. Whether it's a bowl of chili or a gourmet French sauce, the very "best of the best" have a balance of flavors.

I'm going to go through the different flavor categories and talk about ways to add depth of flavor that may be new to you. Then we will talk about ways to blend these flavors in a harmonious way.

Salty

Whole books have been written about what we often think of as plain old salt - it has played a vital role, not only in the development of cookery, but in whole civilizations. Since salt is added to so many processed foods these days, it's easy for most people to get too much in their diets. But low carb eaters tend not to eat many packaged foods, so for the most part we don't have to worry  much when we use salt in cooking.

(More about how much salt we should eat.) It may seem obvious, but the right amount of salt really brings out the flavors in food. Add a little at a time and keep tasting, and experience the flavors coming alive.

There are a lot of gourmet salts on the market these days (and opinions vary as to how much flavor they actually add to food), but there are lots of ways to add a salty flavor to your cooking other than reaching for the salt shaker. If you experiment with these foods, you will be adding other flavors along with the saltiness:

  • Seasoned Salt or Garlic salt
  • Soy sauce
  • Bouillon (or my favorite, Better Than Bouillon)
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Salted butter (which can be magic when added to a sauce)
  • Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan
  • Fish sauce (Thai or Vietnamese)
  • Bacon or other cured meats (ham)

Sour

There's nothing like a little acid to perk up a "blah" dish. Throw a little vinegar or lemon juice into the skillet, and give the whole sauce a zing. It is often best to add acidic notes near the end of cooking, because they mellow out with long exposure to heat - this is especially true of citrus juice.

Here are some sour/acid ingredients to blend into your food:

  • Vinegars of all kinds (watch out for carbs in balsamic vinegar)
  • Lemon juice
  • Lime juice
  • Tamarind
  • Raspberries
  • Cranberries
  • Pickles
  • Tomatoes can be acidic

Sweet

Obviously, sweet foods can be an issue for those on a low-carb diet. But sometimes just a touch of something sweet can make all the difference. Whether using some form of sugar or sugar substitutes, it often doesn't take much to balance the dish. Chinese recipes might have a teaspoon of sugar (that's four grams) in a whole dish serving four people. It is not uncommon for me to put only a drop or two of concentrated liquid sweetener into a dish and find that it transforms the whole thing, countering acid or harshness, rounding out corners.

The food won't taste sweet, just better.

Tip: Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added. To cut down on sugar, use a sugar substitute for most of the sweetness, and a small amount of highly flavored molasses. Or use a very small amount of B or C grade maple syrup, which is more intensely flavored.

Besides sugar, molasses, honey, etc., the following can add sweetness to a dish:

Aromatic

Every cuisine in the world has their favorite aromatic ingredients. These ingredients give a depth of flavor to almost any dish. Many cuisines have "trinities" of aromatics. The French use onions, celery, and carrots (mirepoix). For the Cajuns, it's onions, Bell peppers, and celery. The Caribbean sofrito has onions, garlic, and peppers at its base.

Many Asian cultures include ginger along with other ingredients. Aromatics are usually sautéed in oil near the beginning of cooking the dish - flavoring the oil in this way flavors the whole dish, and it usually only takes a small amount. Here are some aromatic ingredients to use in your cooking:

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Shallots (the flavor is sort of a blend of onions and garlic)
  • Celery
  • Sweet peppers, such as Bell
  • Ginger (or galangal, its Thai cousin)
  • Lemongrass
  • Hot peppers are also aromatics, but I will speak of them separately, in the "spicy" section

Additionally, these ingredients can be thought of as aromatics, though they are often (but not always) added more near the end of cooking:

  • Citrus zest - the colored part of the peel of citrus fruits. This is highly flavorful as the essential oils reside in the zest. When removing the zest, be careful not to get the bitter white part beneath. A Microplane grater does this very well.
  • Kaffir lime leaves
  • Aromatic herbs - parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, etc.

Finally, there is another category of aromatics which I can only call "fishy". The main examples are Vietnamese and Thai fish sauces, and anchovies. People are often turned off by the idea of these flavors, but those same people probably wouldn't notice if I skilled chef put them in a sauce without telling them - they would only say "yum", becuase this background flavor really adds depth.

Anchovies from a can "melt" into a sauce and aren't recognizable in the finished dish.

Spicy/Hot

There is a reason that black pepper sits aside the salt on many tables around the world, as well as in the kitchens of master chefs. Something that "perks up" the taste buds makes the whole dish taste better. Peppers (both from peppercorns and chile peppers) are the main spices which produce this effect, but the dish needn't be spicy-hot to benefit from peppers. Except in purposefully spicy dishes, just a touch of heat in the background won't taste spicy, just more "alive".



When using dried peppers or other spices (usually powder), the flavor comes out best by cooking it in oil, or by dry-roasting on the stove before adding other ingredients. These dry ingredients should always be added at the beginning of a dish to give the flavors time to develop, blend, and lose the harshness of dried spices.

Fresh chile peppers can be added at different times in the cooking, depending upon the effect wanted. If you want them to blend into the dish, treat them as other aromatics. If you want a fresher effects sprinkled through, add them towards the end. Obviously, fresh and dried peppers taste different from one another.

Note that chile peppers vary along a whole spectrum of heat. Whether fresh or dried, I like to use mostly milder peppers for fuller flavor (you can use more for more heat). Ancho is one of my favorites. New Mexico chile is hotter, but very flavorful. (Note: Chili powders are blends of dried chilies with other spices, such as cumin.

They also vary in heat according to the chilies in them.)

Besides black or red peppers, there are other spices which lend some heat, most more subtle:

  • Curry powders or pastes (which also get their heat from peppers.
  • Coriander is perhaps my favorite spice - it's warm, with citrusy notes. It's the seed of the cilantro plant.
  • Cumin (warm, not hot)
  • Mustard, powder or prepared
  • Paprika is also a member of the pepper family, which can be mild to hot, or smoked
  • Turmeric - mild, warm spice used often in Indian cooking
  • Some kinds of cinnamon can verge on spicy, such as Vietnamese cinnamon
  • Many other common spices (cloves, allspice, fennel, etc) can convey a subtle heat
  • Raw garlic can be fairly "hot"

When adjusting flavors at the end of cooking, if you would like the dish to be spicier, add the pepper in the form of a wet sauce or paste, not dried powder. This can be in the form of Tabasco sauce, Asian hot sauces, middle eastern Harissa paste, or any hot sauce you happen to like.

Creamiess

If all the spice is getting to be too much, a little cream or coconut milk can do wonders. No wonder so many hot Asian curries have coconut milk in them.

Ingredients Which Are Blends

If you look at some of the condiments in your cupboard, you'll find that they are already combinations of flavors. Ketchup has vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices.

Worchestershire sauce has molasses, vinegar, tamarind, and anchovies. Barbeque sauce has sugar and vinegar along with the spices. These condiments can add several flavors at once to your cooking.

Using Balancing Magic to Improve Your Cooking

There are some general principles you can use to improve your ability to blend flavors, although the final outcome will reflect your own unique tastes.

Look at a familiar recipe. Does it have something from all the flavor groups? Try adding a little someone from the missing group(s). (Note that all recipes don't need to have all the flavor elements. In some cases it can be overkill. I don't want any acid in my chicken pot pie, for example.)

There is no substitute for tasting the food, making adjustments, and seeing what happens. If you go to far in one direction, often adding opposing flavors will bring the dish back into balance.

  • Too spicy? Add some sweetness or creamiess
  • Too sweet? Add some sour or heat
  • Too sour? Add sweet
  • Too bland? Add salt or some heat
  • Too salty? Add sour
  • Just needs a spark? Add acid or one of the aromatics added at the end of cooking, or just a touch of heat
  • Need more depth? - Start with aromatics next time
  • Too harsh? - Try just a touch of sweetness

And remember to keep tasting, tasting, tasting. Soon your dishes will be the most requested at that dinner party or potluck! And no one will really be able to duplicate them.

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