First, let me say, that what each of us determines is the right amount in each of these categories is subjective. This is mostly due to the density of taste buds in a person’s mouth. The more dense, the more sensitive. Also, the type of dish will affect the ratios of these categories. For example, a dessert is almost never saltier than sweet and an entree is almost never sweeter than salty. Acidity, spice, and texture, on the other hand can vary greatly (you can have a very mild entree and a very acidic dessert).
The first category is salt. This is an obvious one, but I can’t tell you how many dishes I’ve had that could have been great it they included salt. Sometimes this can be remedied with a few dashes from the salt shaker by each person eating (soups are the best candidate), but there are dishes where if the saltiness isn’t added beforehand, the dish simply won’t taste right if it is added after-the-fact (like baking). There are lots of great ways to get saltiness into foods without necessarily just sprinkling it on. Try substituting soy sauce, fish sauce, minced anchovies or paste, salted nuts, or certain cheeses like parmesan. So before you serve it, determine where the salt is coming from. If you honestly want each person to decide for themselves, give them encouragement to do so and make sure it is a dish that won’t taste odd when the salt is sprinkled on top.
The next is sweetness. Unlike salt, which is rarely overused, dishes do occasionally suffer from being too sweet. This coupled with the fact that if a dish isn’t sweet enough we don’t put out a sugar shaker for people to add to their dishes, it is more important to get this one right during preparation. My father-in-law always says when he is baking, “Taste the batter, if it tastes good, the final product should taste good.” This concept applies to more than just baking. Taste everything you can safely eat while cooking. Besides white and brown sugars, other great ways to add sweetness are most fruits or sweet vegetables like corn, tomatoes, or carrots.
Though I was always taught that alkalis taste bitter and acids sour, unsweetened chocolate, which is always described as bitter, is in fact mildly acidic. Sour cherries, on the other hand, are alkaline. Leaving the science for those more knowledgable than me, I’m talking about any ingredient that gives food a tart/sour, or bitter flavor. Sometimes we make dishes that naturally include this flavor, like when we use lemon or tomatoes, but it is rarely considered when making a dish, and this is a shame. Salt, sugar, and sour/bitter all work together. If a dish is too salty, add a little sugar. Too sweet, add a little sour/bitter. Sour/bitter can also be used to heighten the other two flavors making you feel like you need less salt or sugar. Vinegar, citrus, fruits like berries or some apples, vegetables like tomatoes and some leafy greens.
When I’m talking about spice, I’m not only talking about “heat,” which doesn’t necessarily belong in every dish, but also what herbs and spices are used. This is arguably the taste category that people are most sensitive to, so it is a good idea to learn where your preferences stand in comparison to your friends. If you find you like spicy food more than most and you are eating alone, by all means, live it up. Otherwise, make food you consider mild and your friends will probably think it is medium. Usually, heat in recipe is added with red pepper flakes, ground cayenne, or one of a million hot sauces. However, foods like Wasabi, horseradish, cinnamon, or ginger are other ways to add a little heat. Regarding herbs and spices, whatever kind you use, just make sure its noticeable in the dish.
The final category is snap, which I admit is a stretch for the purpose of alliteration and it means textural variance. Add something to your dish so that your mouth has some different sensations while chewing. This is why we fry food. It is why we add breadcrumbs to an otherwise smooth dish like macaroni and cheese. It is why we add fresh bean sprouts and peanuts to a pad thai. It is why we brulee sugar onto custard to make Creme Brulee. Do you have a crunchy dish like a salad? Add some cheese or egg. Do you have a smooth dish like fettuccine alfredo, add some cooked broccoli for a little crunch.
While I do enjoy dishes that focus on just one of these categories, most of the time I prefer dishes that include a balanced approach to all of them. Take a few minutes to think about this before you cook. So what are some of your favorite balanced dishes? What ingredients do you like to use to add salt, sugar, spice, sour/bitter, or snap? What are some of your good ideas? Leave a comment below.