While salt and pepper are always a consideration for final tweaks, our test cooks also look to a range of other pantry ingredients that can help bring a dish into just the right balance.
Toward the end of developing a recipe in the test kitchen, tasters often make comments such as “it tastes just a bit flat” or “a smidge lean” or “too rich.” While salt and pepper are always a consideration for final tweaks, our test cooks also look to a range of other pantry ingredients that can help bring a dish into just the right balance. Such ingredients encompass sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (or savory) flavors; we also may adjust with ingredients that add richness. Just a small quantity of one of these finishing touches (from a pinch to 1/2 teaspoon) is a good starting place. Here are a few of our favorites.
| | Ingredient | What It Does | Suggested Uses | | --- | --- | --- | --- | | Sweet | Granulated or brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, mirin, sweet wines or liqueurs, jams or jellies | Rounds out sharp, bitter, or salty flavors | Salsas, relishes, sauces, vinaigrettes, bitter greens | | Sour | Vinegars, citrus juice, pickled vegetables (such as jalapeños) | Adds brightness to flat-tasting dishes, cuts through richness or sweetness | Meaty stews or soups, creamy sauces and condiments, braised or roasted meats | | Bitter | Dry or prepared mustard, fresh ginger, chili powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, dark chocolate, horseradish, cayenne pepper, coffee, citrus zest, beer | Cuts sweetness | Barbecue meats, slaws, chopped salads, chili | | Umami | Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, fish sauce, anchovy, mushrooms, tomato paste, miso, sherry | Adds meatiness, depth, or earthiness; boosts dishes that taste a bit flat | Bolognese and other meaty sauces, hearty vegetarian sauces, soups, deli sandwich fillings such as tuna salad | | Rich | Heavy cream, butter, olive oil | Rounds out flavors, adds viscosity | Vegetable-based soups, sauces |