How To Balance Flavour

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Balancing flavour is an art based on training, intuition and experience. Luckily, you don’t need to go to culinary school to learn how to do this!

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami are five taste elements that build our overall perception of flavour. When each part is perfectly balanced, our eating experiences are lifted above and beyond. Understanding how flavours become balanced starts with knowing the basic rules behind preparing each component. Remember that adding salt to a dish does more than just making it salty - it enhances or counteracts other flavours within the dish.

How To Balance Flavour

Every Asian dish is so dynamic in flavour. A Thai curry has sweetness from coconut milk and palm sugar, savouriness from fish sauce, spicy and earthy notes from herbs in the curry paste, and sour from the finish of lime juice. All these different flavours combine to achieve a delicious balance on our taste buds.

If a flavour balances another flavour, it means it counteracts it to achieve an even, harmonious taste. For example, spice balances sweet and sweet balances spice. It’s why Mexican hot chocolate is finished with a pinch of cayenne pepper, the spice works with the sweet to produce a more dynamic flavour. Flavours can also enhance each other. This is why there are sea salt caramels or salt chocolate chip cookies. That light addition of saltiness actually amplifies the sweetness of those caramels and cookies.

These are the simple rules dictating how each element will affect overall flavours:

Sweetness

From sugar, honey, fruits or otherwise, sweetness will counteract bitter and sour flavours. It can also be used to cut down the heat of a particularly spicy meal.

Saltiness

Salt plays two very important roles in flavouring a dish. Firstly, it balances against bitterness. Secondly, it enhances most other flavours present in the dish - particularly sweetness. Think about salted caramel - this flavour combination works so well because of the balance created by the salt and sugar. Similarly, salt is commonly used in tomato-based dishes to bring the natural flavours of the tomato forward. If you ever end up with a bland dish, the likely issue is that it’s just under-seasoned (i.e. lacking salt or umami). Any avid foodie knows that under-seasoning dishes are a really common mistake made by home cooks.

Bitterness

Though not the most popular flavour generally, bitterness is critical to balance. The taste of grapefruit, coffee, dark greens or beer can help to cut through the salty richness or sweetness of a meal. Even though you rarely add bitter to dishes, there are lots of ingredients that are naturally bitter, namely our green vegetables. To make it a bit easier to enjoy these bitter veggies, you can add some sweet, salty, or even sour. For a perfect combo, use a vinaigrette that’s a bit sweet, salt, and sour to accompany a salad with bitter greens like endive, spinach, radicchio, or kale. You can even help your kids gobble down their broccoli or cabbage by roasting with a little of brown sugar, honey or balsamic vinegar. 

Sour

Think of vinegar and citrus. Acidity works wonders in balancing a dish, adding liveliness and counteracting sweetness and heat. Pickles and other sour ingredients also cut through rich & fatty ingredients. This is why a dollop of yogurt is perfect for a spicy curry or stew. It helps to counteract that richness and heat, creating a new balance of flavours.

Umami

This flavour can be hard to pin down, but is the inherent savoury notes in soy sauce, mushrooms, oysters and many cheeses. Umami is best used to complement other flavours - perfect for a dish that seems balanced but is still lacking.

Spicy

Sour and sweet flavour balances spice. So, if you have a dish that’s too spicy you can try adding a little sweetness or acidity to adjust the heat.

Flavour Combos

Below we’ve come up with different ideas on how you can fix an under-seasoned dish. Clearly salt is the obvious option, but there are a lot of other condiments and ingredients that can add savoury depth to your meal.

  • Add a splash of soy sauce, fish sauce, or miso to broth or stock
  • Sauté veggies with a little bit of anchovy or shrimp paste
  • Simmer soups with the rind of parmesan cheese
  • Sweetness is not just for desserts.
  • Add some honey, maple syrup, or jam to an acidic vinaigrette to neutralise the sourness of the vinegar.
  • Toss roasted brussel sprouts, which are bitter, with a sweet sauce
  • Add some sugar to an overly spiced curry or soup
  • For the ingredients that are naturally sweet, you can enhance their sweetness with something salty or rich in umami. For example, toss roasted carrots and sweet potatoes with some miso paste.

 

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