We have all done it. We shop for the perfect ingredients; we plan and prepare; we spend hours in the kitchen cooking what we hope will be an amazing meal and then … the seasoning is wrong! Now our dinner is ruined, right? Not so fast. Lots of seasoning mistakes can be fixed. It’s all about understanding flavors and balance. There are six basic flavors in cooking: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, spicy and savory. A good dish will have a balance of these flavors. If you go overboard or underboard on one flavor, it can be balanced by another. So before you throw your dish away, try to fix the mistake. Not only will you have that delicious meal you planned but you will learn to further develop your palate for seasoning.
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Here is how to fix the most common seasoning mistakes.
1. Avoiding Salt Completely
Too much salt is not a good thing for anyone’s health, but too little salt is not a good thing for a dish. Salt has this magical ability to bring out the best flavor in any food. It can even make sweet foods taste sweeter; that’s why we add a pinch of salt in baking and desserts. Without salt, food tastes bland and unappetizing. More chefs get sent home on TV cooking competitions for underseasoning a dish than any other reason.
But how do you know how much salt to use? When I write recipes, unless a dish needs a specific amount of salt, I usually write “salt to taste.” What exactly does that mean? It means that each of us has different taste buds and preferences. It means your ingredients might be saltier than mine. You need to taste the food and decide for yourself if it could taste better by adding more salt. I used to be a salt fanatic but after I cut back on salt for my health, I find I am more sensitive to it than other people. So I not only salt to my taste, I ask my husband to taste it as well. If he says the Thai Corn Soup needs more salt, I add another pinch. Taste your food and if you’re not sure if it needs more salt, add a dash to a small portion and taste it again. If it tastes better, add the salt to the whole dish. If it doesn’t taste better, don’t add it. The best way to learn how to season “to taste” is to keep tasting and tweaking. Always taste your food before serving it and err on the side of caution. You can always add more salt but you can’t take it out once it’s in the dish.
2. Not Seasoning at Every Level
Seasoning is not a one-time event when cooking. There are many levels to a dish and the seasoning needs to be at every level. If, for instance, you are breading and frying tempeh to make Tempeh “Fish” and Chips, there are several opportunities for seasoning: the tempeh itself, the flour, the batter or breading and the finished fried tempeh. Each layer needs some seasoning to ensure there will be flavor in every bite. If you add seasoning to a marinade, say for Tofu Vegetable Kebabs, the tofu only absorbs a small amount of the marinade so you end up throwing out most of the seasoning. Your food will need more seasoning during cooking. When making pasta, you need to add salt to the cooking water or the pasta will taste bland. It’s not enough to only have seasoning in the sauce even if the sauce is as incredible as this Ramp and Spinach Pesto Sauce.
Seasoning at every level doesn’t have to mean using a ton of salt or spices. You can divide the amount of seasoning you want to use between the various layers of the dish. If a recipe for a sauteed dish, like this Summer Light Veggie Saute, says to add one teaspoon of salt, you can add a pinch of it when you add each ingredient to the pan – a pinch for the onions, a pinch for the peppers, a pinch for the green beans and so on until you have used one teaspoon. The same applies to soy sauce in a stir-fry. By seasoning at every level, the flavor develops all through the cooking of the dish and then you only have to taste the end product for any needed adjustments.
3. The Food is Too Salty
Like I wrote, I used to be a salt addict but my resulting blood pressure required that I cut way back on my sodium intake. Now I find I’m very sensitive to salt and so what tastes salty to me tastes bland to everyone else. Knowing that, I often add more salt to dishes than my taste buds want and many times, I find I’ve added too much for everyone. What to do? If the dish is a soup or stew, like this Eggplant, Onion and Tomato Stew, add more water to dilute the salt. You can also add a raw, sliced potato to the pot as potatoes absorb salt very well. If you have more of the ingredients you were using, you can add more to the dish so the ratio of salt to food will be lessened. Adding acid or sweetness to the dish also helps balance salt so a touch of lemon juice, vinegar or sugar can help.
To avoid over-salting food in the future, I suggest not necessarily following the recipe. Since everyone’s taste for salt differs, add less than the stated amount and taste the dish. If you feel it needs more, add more. If like me, you need a second opinion, ask someone else to taste it for you. Keep in mind when a recipe calls for other salty ingredients such as capers, olives, or soy sauce, as in this Pasta Puttanesca, and use less salt accordingly. Lastly, when making soup or stew, wait until it has finished simmering to add the salt. If you add it before the soup or stew is done, the flavors might intensify by the time the liquid reduces.
4. The Food is Too Spicy
I love spice and I love my food hot, but even I have my limits. One day I was making my Southwestern Tofu Scramble and, not measuring, I threw way too much spice in it. All the coughing and desperate grabbing for water made me have to admit the dish was inedible. But I didn’t want to throw all those ingredients away and waste all that food; plus, I was hungry! I suppose I could have added another block of tofu or two, along with more veggies, and try to dilute the spices but this was already a double batch. Thinking about how spicy food is often paired with sour cream or yogurt to cool it down, I reached for my vegan mayo. I mixed a few spoons of the cold, creamy vegan mayo into my tofu scramble, tossed in the fridge for a while and then feasted on the most delicious, zesty vegan “egg” salad I had ever eaten.
The moral of the story is to measure your spices rather than just tossing them in straight from the jar (and I always remove those lids with the little holes because sprinkling slows me down). But if you do make something too spicy, there are things you can do to fix it. Add some acidity by squeezing some lemon or lime on it or add something sweet like sugar or agave to balance out the heat. If you have more of the ingredients other than the spice that went into the recipe, add them so the percentage of spice will decrease. If you can, add coconut milk or other non-dairy milk to the dish. Serve ketchup, vegan mayo, sour cream or non-dairy yogurt on the side to help cool things down.
5. The Food is Too Sweet
One thing I do not have is a sweet tooth. I’m a savory girl all the way which means lots of foods taste too sweet to me. But when your savory food turns out way too sweet for everyone and dinner tastes more like dessert, you can fix it. You can dilute the sweetness by adding more liquid to the dish. If dilution is not an option, as in this Savory Sweet Potato Quiche, balance out the sweet with other flavors such as acid. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice or a spoon of apple cider vinegar. Try adding tangy non-dairy yogurt if that’s appropriate to the dish. Balance the sweet taste with more seasoning to make the dish spicier or a fat such as olive oil or avocado. Do not add more salt since salt brings out the sweetness of food and that’s what we want to avoid in this case.
6. The Food is Too Acidic/Sour
Sometimes when I make salad dressing, I go a bit overboard on the vinegar and when I taste it, my face puckers up. Too much vinegar means too much acid and too much sour taste. The best way to counterbalance too much sour is to add sweet, salty or savory flavors. That too-sour Creamy Lemon-Herb Dressing gets a hit of sugar or agave and suddenly, my mouth transforms from pucker to a smile. This is the same reasoning for adding carrots to a tomato sauce like this Marinara Sauce – the sweet carrots balance the acidic tomatoes. Adding salt can also help – think margaritas and salt. When making a stir-fry sauce, if you add too much brown rice vinegar, adding more soy sauce will bring the sauce back to delicious. Soy sauce also fits into the savory/umami category as does ketchup which some people think balances everything.
7. The Food is Not Acidic/Sour Enough
This is a lesson that I recently learned. I was never a fan of acidic/sour tastes so maybe I avoided this but adding acid to a dish brightens it up. Try adding just a teaspoon of vinegar to your next soup and you will see what I mean. Squeeze some lemon over sauteed vegetables or over creamy pasta dishes like my Creamy Rotini Alfredo with Asparagus and Peas. The acid will cut the richness of the sauce and make it taste fresh and flavorful. Whenever you think a dish tastes dull or is missing something, try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime or a bit of vinegar or wine to it to wake it up.
8. The Food is Too Bitter
The most common foods that might be too bitter are leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, and mustard greens. Other foods that may taste bitter include cocoa, coffee, espresso, chocolate, and some herbs and spices such as parsley, paprika and cayenne pepper. Bitter is the opposite of acidic/sour so adding citrus juice, vinegar or tangy non-dairy yogurt can help balance the dish. Squeeze some lemon over your sauteed collard greens. The lime in this Magical Roasted Corn and Lime Tortilla Soup helps to balance the red spices like chile powder which can be bitter. You can also try adding something sweet such as agave or sugar. I also always add a dash of grated nutmeg to my bitter dishes. It adds a nutty flavor that I love and it seems to help balance the flavors in the dish. Try it in this Baked Spinach with Vegan Ricotta and Nutmeg Dip.
When a recipe is balanced, no one flavor will stand out; they will all work together to create a sensational taste. However, things go wrong for every cook so it’s important to know the tricks that can help you salvage your dishes and your dinner.
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