Q: Whenever I try to re-create a friend’s recipe at home, it never tastes as good as when they make it. I swear I’m following the recipe – what gives?
A: Cooking is both a science and an art form. If you are trying new recipes at home, chances are you’ve got the “science” part down – you can chop, combine, and cook the ingredients and you end up with something that at least looks delicious. But if your first bite doesn’t live up to your expectations, chances are you need a little help with the “art” of cooking: balancing flavors, something you don’t always get by following a recipe (even if you follow it to a T).
WHY SIMPLY FOLLOWING A RECIPE ISN’T ENOUGH
Any good recipe will get you 90% of the way there – you will have prepared all of the ingredients correctly, added some seasonings, and you will end up with an edible dish. But tasting and seasoning as you go – that final 10% – cannot come from a page. It has to come from your taste buds, and you have to learn how to trust your palate. Why? Perhaps the garlic cloves the author used were bigger than yours, or maybe your chili powder isn’t quite as spicy. Perhaps your produce isn’t quite as fresh and some of the sugars have converted to starch, or maybe they forgot to mention that they added an extra glug of olive oil at the end to add richness.
Learning how to tell just exactly what a recipe is missing is a skill that you can only build through practice, but the good news is that we are all perfectly capable of mastering it. Here are a few helpful tips to get you started on the right path.
KNOW YOUR BASIC FLAVORS
- Salty: This one is the most specific, as the main source of the salty flavor is – you guessed it- salt. We recommend kosher or sea salt over highly processed table salt (it tastes better, see for yourself!), and we like to remind people that excess salt in our diet comes from processed foods, not the salt shaker on your dinner table, so salt liberally to taste. Salt brings out the flavor of every ingredient in your dish. A lot of ingredients high in umami (see below) are also salty.
- Sweet: Not surprisingly ingredients like sugar, maple syrup, and honey are great ways to bring sweetness to a dish – but you can also add balsamic or apple cider vinegar, fruit, or sugary vegetables like carrots and peas.
- Sour: Lemon and lime juice are common ingredients that add a sour element and can brighten up many dishes. Sour flavors tend to hit you in the cheek and make your mouth pucker. Other examples are vinegars, yogurt and sour cream, and wine.
- Bitter: Arugula, grapefruit, and coffee are some ingredients that might help you distinguish the difference between bitter (which hits you in the back of the mouth) and sour. Many people find bitter flavors alone to be unenjoyable, but they play an important role in balancing sweet and salty – don’t be afraid of this important flavor!
- Umami: “Officially” recognized as a unique flavor in 2002, it is often also categorized as savory and has been adding a depth of flavor to foods for centuries. Fermented foods are especially high in umami (hard cheeses, pickled vegetables, miso, soy sauce, fish sauce). Tomatoes and mushrooms are also common sources.
- Spicy (honorable mention): While it isn’t technically one of the main five flavors, adding heat to a dish can also bring it to life by balancing sweetness or sourness. The obvious sources of spice are hot peppers (whole or in the form of hot sauce), but arugula, garlic, and pepper are a few examples of whole foods that can also pack some heat.
DITCH THE FEAR
Adding new ingredients or going off-script when following a recipe can be intimidating – but a little experimentation in the short term will pay off as the connection between your brain and taste buds strengthens. (We promise!) Here are three tips to ditching the fear:
- A little of any flavor will not ruin a dish. If you *think* you may need to add a sour component to your dish, add a very small amount of it (a spritz of lemon, a dash of vinegar) and taste for a subtle flavor improvement. If it tastes like it is heading in the right direction, you can add more. If it didn’t have the intended effect, try adding a little bit of an ingredient from a different flavor category.
- Test before you commit. In some recipes, you can try a bite or a spoonful with an added ingredient before adding it to the whole pot. Think a soup might taste better with some sweet? Add a small amount of sugar to one bite and try it alone, then adjust the whole dish accordingly.
- Rules are made to be broken. Fish sauce and soy sauce do not have to be relegated to Southeast Asian recipes – they can add umami to just about anything. You may be used to topping Indian curries with a dollop of yogurt (sour) but it is equally delicious with grains (slightly bitter) and roasted vegetables (sweet).
Start experimenting and have fun with it – before you know it, your friends will be the ones asking why your dishes are always so delicious.
A FEW EXTRA RESOURCES
- Free Download: Our Favorite Flavor Boosters (Sound Food Uprising)
- We use this Good Garbanzos recipe to teach our participants how to balance flavors – the result is surprisingly delicious! (Sound Food Uprising)
- Salt Fat Acid Heat: An exceptional cookbook by Samin Nosrat (also an exceptional Netflix series if you’d rather watch than read)