6 min read.Updated: 03 Feb 2013, 11:35 PM ISTMadhu Menon
Madhu Menon on some of the common problems with recipes and how to fix them
I’m sure you’ve all faced this problem at some point when you’ve cooked food—you follow a recipe to the letter but when you taste the final dish, something seems “off". You can’t quite put your finger on it, but the food doesn’t have the same depth of flavour you expected. The individual flavours all seem to be there but they don’t seem to be coming together as one. The other common cooking problem is when certain flavours dominate and upset the composition of the dish, and you don’t know how to restore order to the universe. Don’t be too hard on yourself; this isn’t something only beginner cooks face. Even chefs who’ve made the same dish thousand times over with an exact recipe have to face this from time to time. They’re just more experienced at fixing it. And now, dear reader, you too shall benefit from my mistakes over the years. (Oh, you’re welcome.)
Why do these problems happen in the first place? Is it a problem with recipes? Some food magazines have test kitchens for verifying that recipes work well, and most cookbook authors too do the same, I’m sure. So people could be forgiven for thinking the fault lies with them for not executing recipes right. Again, don’t be too hard on yourself. The problem is in assuming that recipes are anything more than a general guide. A good chef knows that variance can be introduced through a variety of factors like ingredient quality, flavour intensity, texture, cooking temperature, outside temperature, storage, and the unknown x-factor (don’t look at me with that strange expression; I’ve conducted cooking classes where seven people making the same dish have come up with different results). Ingredients can be notoriously fickle. Chillies in the same batch can vary in heat. The sourness of different limes is often startling. One tablespoon of ginger can be very mild if it’s young or very sharp if it’s old. Different brands of table salt can have different grain sizes, affecting saltiness. And that’s just fresh, unprocessed ingredients. The problem is compounded if you use processed foods like sauces and pastes. I could go on, but you get the general idea. With so many factors in play, the only way to get food right is to keep tasting as you cook, and fixing flavours along the way. (A notable exception is baking, where this is usually not possible.)
Now that I’ve made you feel a bit better about your cooking and you don’t need to resort to retail therapy to get over that failed dish you tried making, let’s figure out how to fix things, shall we? If you didn’t know this already, the five basic flavours are salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami (or savoury). Some cultures consider “pungent" or “spicy" too in the list. (For a more exhaustive, somewhat dry examination of this, look up the entry for “taste" on Wikipedia.) If you can balance these well, your food will improve by miles. But since you’re not reading a book, I’ll jump straight to the common symptoms and fixes.
Flavours individually present but not tasting as a “whole": Common but also easy to fix. This is almost always a seasoning issue. There isn’t enough salt in your dish. If you’ve read my earlier column on salt, you’ll know that salt does a whole lot more than just make things salty. Just keep adding some salt in small amounts (1/4 teaspoon increments usually work) till the flavours start harmonizing.
Oh dear, that’s way too salty: The other side of the first problem, but harder to fix. There are two ways to get around this. First, try adding some more sourness (aka acidity). Depending on what you’re making, that could be through a range of souring agents like lemons, limes, vinegar, other citrus fruit, tamarind, etc. This will take some of the focus away from the saltiness. The other, more laborious way is to make another small batch of the dish without salt, combine it with the over-salted batch, and then add salt bit by bit till things are okay. (This only works with foods like curries, stews, and sauces. Don’t try it with, say, grilled fish.)
Oh my, that’s sour! Perhaps you read a recipe calling for 3 tablespoons of lemon juice and actually added 3 tablespoons of lime juice, turning your food mouth-puckering sour. The fix is adding sweetness. Sweetness will take some of the edge off, and make the flavour less sharp. And be careful with those sour flavours. Add them in small amounts always. Sugar can also help in lifting sour flavours and making them taste more rounded, but that’s another column.
I didn’t want this sugar rush: Your food is too sweet? That’s not common in savoury food, but it can happen in desserts. Fix it with sourness and a dash of saltiness. This also helps while making sauces like barbecue sauce where sweetness is a notable component. (I use chilli in some desserts for another dimension, but I don’t recommend it for everyone.)
My mouth is on fire: A problem I’ve encountered in Indian kitchens, which I affectionately dub “My Mother Is Cooking Syndrome". Too much spice is sometimes a problem with a chilli-loving cook, but chillies are also an untrustworthy lot when it comes to intensity. First, try to prevent this from happening by adding less than you need, and adjusting towards the end of cooking. If that doesn’t work, sweetness will help round off the heat, and in general is a good thing to add in spicy dishes to bring balance and add depth of flavour. If you need more than just a wee bit of adjustment, add some salt too, or you will once again have a “blah" feeling.
Too bitter: Bitterness usually comes from herbs and vegetables that have this flavour and certain spices too. I’m not a fan of bitterness, and prefer to use less of the flavour than fixing it later. But if you need to, adding sweetness, followed by saltiness if required is the way to go. Occasionally, sourness can help too.
My food lacks depth and/or body: So everything tastes right, but occasionally food like hearty winter stews and curries might need some ‘‘body". This is probably because it needs more fat. Fat isn’t always the bad guy. Fat provides flavour. Most flavours mix much better with fat than water. Fat conveys comfort and richness to the tongue too.
My food is too heavy: The opposite problem of not having enough fat. Very rich foods with high fat levels can weigh down your palate and subdue some flavours. Chefs generally like to balance this with some acidity i.e. sourness to “cut through" the richness and make flavours ‘‘pop" more.
There was supposed to be a nice herb flavour, but it seems to have died: So your pasta sauce doesn’t have that nice herb flavour you wanted? It might be because you cooked it too long. Fresh herb flavours lose intensity the longer you cook food. For a brighter flavour, add a bit of the herb towards the last few minutes of cooking.
Too bland: The food is your canvas, my friend. Go nuts. Add some acidity first, then maybe some salt. Pungency can come in after that.
Lastly, keep in mind that serving temperature affects flavour perception. Heat amplifies flavours, especially spiciness and sourness. The same dish if served cold will taste more subdued. Adjust flavours by tasting when the food is at the temperature you intend to serve it.
I hope I’ve given you a practical guide to fixing some of the common flavour balance issues. Of course, it’s not always this simple because there are so many sources for each flavour, all of which come with their own special additional attributes, but you will, in time, learn to build great food using that. These are just your first steps. Have fun, play around, try new things. Who knows, you might find a flavour combination you’ve never tried, and it might become a favourite.
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer. He is on Twitter at @madmanweb