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How to Balance Flavors In Your Cooking

Bringing Your Cooking From "Good" to "Great"

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Updated April 01, 2011

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 we don't have to worry quite as much when we use salt in cooking. 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
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