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Can you tell what a dish 'needs'?

When I'm cooking I taste as I go and although I can tell a dish needs 'something' I can not always discern what exactly is needed. This can lead to me adding a bit of this, a bit of that - until I end up with something inedible or a bowl of something drowned in sriracha or ketchup. Or both.

What do you reach for when a savoury dish needs 'something'?

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  1. Two methods: 1) I taste and wait to see which area of my tongue) isn't feeling "awake" (I don't know how to explain it better than that). I've learned through trial and error which region of tastebuds lights up in response to which flavors (salt, tart/bright, rich/deep, etc). I add a teeny bit of a thing that will correspond to that region. Unfortunately I can't explain it better than that, but it works for me. 2) If I'm not sure if a given spice will help, I take a taste of the dish, hold it on my tongue, and sniff the spice. Usually I can tell by smell whether the items will work together. I don't know if either of these things will work for you, but they're almost fool-proof for me. Happy cooking!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Kitchen Imp

      I never thought of sniffing - what an excellent idea. Thanks!

      1. re: Kitchen Imp

        Sniffing IS a great idea! Note to self..

      2. My things are:

        Honey (sweet)
        Maggi (salt and umami)
        Cider vinegar (sour)

        1. On Iron Chef, the critique of dishes seems to fall into 1. This was really underseasoned/ undersalted. 2. It could have used a little acid. 3. This dish is not balanced. So first I make sure the seasoning and salt are sufficient. If that doesn't do it, I might add some acid--citrus, vinegar--often adding some zest to give that flavor strength without tartness. If it is too sharp, I might add a pinch of sugar. 3. If it seems too strong, I make sure to try it with a piece of bread if it's going on a starch since I know that will "soften" the flavor. And if all else fails, I can usually turn it into some kind of pasta sauce with the addition of tomato sauce or cream.

          1. can't tell you what I reach for exactly, depends on what's going on in the dish I'm trying to improve.

            but I can say it's not the usual suspect I do reach for. sometimes it's brown sugar instead of white sugar or honey. other times it's red pepper flakes if I need a boost. the other day it was red wine vinegar to pump up the slightly dull flavor of the gravy for the beef stew. 1 1/2 tsp later it was perfect. often times it's salt that is needed but I go for my house seasoning instead which is garlic onion salt pepper. then that's too much. something as dumb sounding as sweet pickle juice, however small an amount, is all it takes. curry powder, a variety of mustards that I keep on hand all tasting different, one day the sauce for the chicken wings wasn't right and I added 1 Tb ketchup. it was all it needed.
            I've even used a jam of either apricot or pineapple or peach to improve a skillet of baked chicken that just was a little flat. 1 or 2 tb and much improvement.

            1 Reply
            1. re: iL Divo

              best suggestion though is, always add a little bit at a time because if you overdo it, it's ruined and there's no bringing it back. like with the ketchup, I was hesitant to add it to a very savory and basically hot buttery sauce, but knew just a titch could possibly improve it with nothing else added.

            2. Sometimes things can be remedied by salt, red pepper flakes, fresh lemon juice, or a tiny bit of sugar.