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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.

              1. Salt or an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Very occasionally, a sweetener of some sort.

                1. most commonly, home cooking needs more salt and/or more acid -- citrus juice or zest and rice vinegar are some of of my favorites. it's what really makes restaurant food pop.

                  nearly every savory dish i make begins with dried thyme fried in the oil before i add anything else.

                  ketchup and sriracha are condiments. i never use them while cooking anything.

                  1. Often it's worcestershire sauce that I add; or any of a variety of vinegars. If I'm really not sure then I take a small amount of what I'm cooking and put it into a ramekin and add whatever I think it needs to that small bit. Then I can taste it w/o the potential to ruin the whole dish.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: gourmanda

                      From my experience, its usually salt or umami if a savory dish is lacking fullness in flavor.

                      Sometimes with a soup, it is truly the stock that adds the missing flavor.

                      For sauce with fresh tomatoes, the tomatoes can be too acidic, so sugar is the trick.

                      Cooking a Thai curry from scratch is a good way to experiment with how the flavors should balance as it should have salty, sweet, sour and umami tastes in it.

                    2. Pork. Nearly non-dessert can be improved by adding some kind of pork product.

                      2 Replies
                        1. re: ricepad

                          Do you keep a pork grinder by the stove? Or may be a bacon shaker? Or a pinch of pork sung? :)

                        2. When you don't know what it needs, it usually needs salt.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Nyleve

                            You know, you're right. Unless it seems very salty already, salt is the best thing to try first.

                          2. Howdy folks. I believe this is my first time posting here but since this site often comes up in certain google searches and I always enjoy reading the topic that came up, I figured I'd join in for once.

                            A bit of a candid story on the topic:

                            My Father is an alcoholic and also a terrible cook. However, he grew up with the traditional family sunday dinner routine and so when we were kids, every Sunday was the typical pot roast, mashed potatoes, carrots and gravy type family dinner for me and my brothers. As I said, he can't cook, but the one thing he did was make THE best gravy in the world. It just had 'something,' to it that made it so deliciously savory and 'umami,' as people like calling it these days. Something that make you go 'what's in this that makes it so good.'

                            I'm the youngest and as my brothers grew older and were out on their own, it would just be me and my dad. My parents are divorced so every other Sunday was the 'Sunday visit to dad's,' only then it was just me. I was old enough that it was kind of silly for him to still be doing it but I just let him have his 'thing.'

                            He was finishing up the meal and getting to work on the gravy. I could tell he had been drinking and I see him reach for the sugar bowl and is about to pour it in the gravy! NOOOOOO! I was kind of embarassed for him thinking 'Great, he's so drunk he can't even tell the difference between salt and sugar.'

                            I wondered if I should say something but I didn't want to embarass him or worse make him angry. Finally I decided 'no way, I'm not letting him ruin the best gravy on earth!'

                            "Um, dad.... that's sugar...,' I said.

                            With the sugar bowl tilted and ready to pour in the gravy he turned his head to look at me and and matter-of-factly said, 'I know.'

                            He shook a small amount of the sugar into the gravy and my now blown mind realized, all this time it was sugar he was putting in it!

                            Overly long story short: A little sugar in something savory doesn't make it sweet, it makes it more savory.

                            Nowadays, all the Thanksgiving and Christmas getogethers are down at Mom's house and my oldest brother ('Mr. alpha male,' of the family) always gets to be in charge of the gravy. I am usually in the kitchen with him and suggested once that he put a bit of sugar in it. He looked at me cross-eyed and said 'Get out of here, I'm not putting sugar in gravy.'

                            I wait for him to leave the room at some point and when no one is looking, I always sneak some in. Everyone raves about the gravy each year.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Jjjr

                              Lovely post and a great lesson!