The Balancing Act of Balancing Flavors

I’m always saying that recipes are more templates than commandments — a starting point to creating meals that work for you. A recent conversation on the NOURISH Evolution Facebook page reminded me how important it is for every cook to balance flavors to suit his or her own palate.
balancing-flavorsA reader responded to a recipe for Speedy Chickpea Couscous with Pesto that we’d posted from Maria Speck’s wonderful new book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals. “Seemed like it was missing something,” she noted, “a shot of lemon juice or some vinegar.”

This piqued my interest, because our Facebook friend was on the right track. While the recipe leaves it up to the cook to use any type of pesto, we’d suggested using the Basil-Mint Pesto below. Indeed, when I developed that pesto recipe it needed a little splash of lemon juice to enliven and heighten its flavor. As it turned out, our Facebook pal had used some store-bought pesto she had on hand, which, we think, accounted for the flat flavor of the final dish.

That experience reinforced the importance of following your own palate to cook food you’ll love. “We all like to eat things our own way,” says Speck. “My Greek mom puts loads of lemon juice on everything — she loves the tang.”

Of course, you want to develop the flavors of a dish throughout its preparation, and some ingredients need to be added early in the cooking process. Dried herbs, for example, benefit from cooking to soften and mellow their flavor. But just before serving is a key opportunity to give a dish one last adjustment to elevate it from ho-hum to wonderful.

Some (very) basic tips for how to balance flavors:

  • Salt. If you’ve added salt a little at a time during cooking, you may not need much at the end. But a little finishing dash of salt can boost the flavor of a bland dish. Check out Salted author Mark Bitterman’s tips for how to use salt with finesse.
  • Sour. This is what our Facebook friend craved from her pesto, and it comes in the form of acidic ingredients like lemon juice and vinegars. A splash of acid brightens the overall flavor of a dish. As Harold McGee notes in his latest book, Keys to Good Cooking, acid also stimulates saliva production to make food, literally, more mouthwatering.
  • Sweet. If a dish is too sour, you can add a dash of sugar to balance it out. Similarly, sweet can help balance an overly salty dish.
  • Bitter. You’re not typically looking to add bitterness to a dish. You’re more likely to want to tame it. For that, try a touch of salt or sugar.
  • Umami. This is the so-called “fifth” taste and refers to savoriness. It also helps carry a dish’s aromatic qualities, McGee notes. If you taste a dish and feel like it needs some heft or roundness, you can add a splash of soy sauce or Worcestershire. A grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese also boosts umami.
  • Pungent. This isn’t one of the five tastes, but pungency is what you crave when you taste a dish and reach for the pepper grinder. Mustard and wasabi are other finishing-touch ingredients that add pungency.

Another tip from McGee: Season foods at their serving temperature. Heat accentuates flavors while cold tends to diminish them. Ever had cold leftovers for lunch the next day? Bet you needed to add salt or something to boost the flavor.

Of course, those are just some basics. You can play with all manner of ingredients–including fresh herbs, flavored oils, different types of vinegars and salts–all of which will add different nuances to your cooking. That’s where it gets really exciting and every dish becomes truly your own creation.

“Most important: Never hesitate to let your own taste buds guide you in cooking,” says Speck. “There’s is no right or wrong.”

How to Use Salt

The first time I met Mark Bitterman, co-owner of At the Meadow and author of the upcoming book Salted, we were at a restaurant with a bunch of mutual friends. I’d heard about him and his salt passion, but I was still surprised when he pulled a cluster of pouches out of his bag and mounded salts—from delicate pink to rusty red to steel gray to white—right onto the tablecloth.

how-to-use-salt-post“You carry those with you?” I asked.

Mark shrugged, completely unfazed. “I like people to be able to taste how different salts interact with different foods. Here, check this out …” And, just like that, my view of salt changed forever.

Here are Mark’s suggestions for how to use salt.

Be Deliberate

Most of us sprinkle salt—often kosher salt—into foods we’re cooking almost without thinking. But Mark urges us to take a more strategic approach. “The idea is to think about what result you want to achieve and then use the best salt for the job.” In many cases, this will mean sprinkling a certain type of salt on the end dish–more like a condiment than an ingredient. Mark advocates a fundamental shift in our salting technique to use less during cooking and more at the end.

Be Choosy

But Mark’s not talking about shaking on the Morton. He’s talking about the thousands of hand-harvested artisanal salts that come from every corner of the earth. Nutritionally, these salts contain over 12% less sodium chloride than kosher or iodized salt, with the rest of the content being trace minerals. “Those minerals contribute to the roundness of the flavors,” Mark says. “They interact much more gently with the food and have a richer, more balanced taste.”

Mark likes to divide salts into three foundational categories–fleur de sel, sel gris and flake salt–and uses each type different ways.

Fleur de Sel – Fleur de sel and sel gris are what Mark calls “sister salts” in that they’re both types of sea salt formed by salinated water being concentrated down from pond to pond until crystals form within the brine. While the names are French—fleur de sel means “flower of salt” and sel gris means “gray salt”—these types of salt are made all over the world. Fleur de sel are the delicate crystals that blossom on the surface of the pond. “Fleur de sel comingles; it lets a food’s inner light shine forth.” It’s a versatile finishing salt for just about any dish.

Sel Gris – Sel gris are the crystals raked from the brine and the bottom of the pond. It too can be used as a finishing salt; Mark speaks of a “syncopated saltiness” with sel gris where every bite is different. “It’s a very vibrant, lively way to season something.” But Mark also recommends sel gris as an all-purpose cooking salt. “The great thing is that sel gris can be inexpensive, but you’re still using a beautiful hand-harvested artisan product in your daily cooking.”

Flake Salt – Flake salts are salt crystals that have been formed into flakes. “They can be flat, arrowhead shaped or big, fat pyramids.” Where fleur de sel is delicate and dainty, flake salts are “the Lamborghini salts. They’re sort of showy and flashy. They spark and stimulate your palate and then get out of the way and let the food shine through.” Mark finds flake salts exceptional on simple green salads. “There’s a beautiful crisp snap of salt, but then it’s gone and the flavor of the salad shines through; there’s sparkle without it being overpowering.”


Salt is made around the world, from Australia to Wales, Bali to Vietnam. But do salts from different places taste different too? “Absolutely,” says Mark. In addition to the terroir element (as in wine, where the elements of the earth and place affect the fruit and, ultimately, what’s in the bottle), there’s also what Mark calls a merroir effect. “The conditions of the ocean affect the salt. French sea salt is minerally and briny, on the Adriatic coast of Italy they’re fruity and sweet. In the Philippines the salts have round, warm flavor.” Play with different types of salt to see which ones you like where (and keep an eye out for Part II of my talk with Mark … an artisanal salt tasting).

Use Salt Mindfully

Aside from the unique flavor and texture that artisanal salts bring to food, and the additional nutritional punch, there’s a soulful aspect too. “When you use these salts—be it a standard sel gris or a rare fleur de sel or flake salt—you’re using a regal ingredient that’s at the core of our culinary traditions. You start to treat it like an important ingredient and use it more mindfully. And in the end, you salt better.”

Mark and his wife, Jennifer, own At The Meadow in Portland, Oregon where they sell artisanal salts, chocolate, wine and flowers. Also add Mark’s book, Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, to your bookshelf.

Making Sense of Salt

If you’ve been cooking our recipes here on , you’ve probably noticed that the vast majority of them have no measurement when it comes to salt–only “sea salt” listed in the ingredients. The reason is twofold. First, range of preference varies widely when it comes to how heavily to salt a dish. Second, I’m more interested in encouraging people to wisely discern how much salt suits both their taste and needs than dictate how much to use in a single dish.

making-sense-salt-postI’ve heard it time and time and time again: Someone reads this or that saying to cut down on sodium, so the reader throws the salt dish out with the brine. But judiciously seasoning whole foods with salt both during cooking and afterwards—almost as a garnish—is not what we need to be worrying about. Way back when there were no Doritos or boxed mac ‘n’ cheese and humans lived off vegetables and meats and fruit and grain, the average person consumed about a gram of sodium per day compared to today’s average of 10-12 grams and even more. That’s not to say that salt was shunned by humans in the old days; quite the opposite in fact. Salt, which is made up primarily of sodium chloride, has been a prized ingredient for millennia, both for its ability to draw out the natural flavors of foods as well as its role in preserving them.

The issue with salt—and the hypertension and kidney problems associated with excessive sodium intake—lies more in processed food than in seasoning at the stove. One hot dog, for instance, has over 900 milligrams of sodium in it, whereas a quarter teaspoon of salt—a generous pinch that could easily season a dish for four—has only 500 milligrams.

Another element to using salt wisely is understanding what type to use for what application. A fine, crystallized sea salt works well as a cooking seasoning since it disperses evenly, but might very well overwhelm a finished dish. Salts with a coarser texture make excellent “finishing salts” to be used, almost as a garnish, at the table.

Still skeptical about salt? Here’s a breakdown of how a day’s meals can stack up sodium-wise with meals cooked from (using a 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in the tartines and 1/4 in the carbonara) versus processed and packaged foods.

Sodium Chart
Sodium Chart

If you’re salt sensitive or if you have a predisposition to hypertension, certainly you’ll want to watch your sodium intake. But the numbers above show–with processed foods coming in over 300% higher in sodium than those on –that if a pinch of salt is going to make whole foods more appealing to you, it’s probably worth it in the long run.

Build a Healthy Pantry

Let’s be honest. Come 5:30, how many of us throw open the fridge and hope something will shout, “I’M YOUR DINNER!”? Then, disheartened, we close the door and resort to pizza or take-out or Lean Cuisine . . . again. Having a well-stocked pantry can help you break that cycle by giving you the ability to transform whatever looks back at you from the fridge into a wholesome, home-cooked meal. Here’s how to build a pantry to nourish a healthier you.

pantry-postCooking oils. No matter whether it’s a head of broccoli or leftover chicken thighs in the fridge, a drizzle of oil in a hot sauté pan can transform it into something magnificent. Choose healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil, expeller-pressed canola oil and peanut oil as your basics. Others, like walnut and toasted sesame oil, are great as finishing oils for adding depth of flavor.

A variety of vinegars. It may sound extravagant, but I heartily advocate for a half-dozen vinegars in your pantry. Sure it’s an investment initially, but the shelf-life of vinegar (unlike oils) is virtually infinite. My ideal spread includes good white and red wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar, balsamic vinegar, cider vinegar and sherry vinegar. You’ll be amazed how the variety zips up your vinaigrettes (and your desire to make homemade dressing). And don’t be afraid to use them in sauces or even as a braising liquid.

Whole grains and dried beans and legumes. Wholesome, quick-cooking starches like whole grain pasta and couscous, bulgur and farro make a substantial base for a variety of dishes in under half an hour. Dried beans can be soaked and cooked in about the same time using a pressure cooker, and many legumes, like lentils, cook in about 20 minutes on the stove top.

Canned beans and veggies. These are your secret weapon for rounding out a meal. Whip up a quick pasta sauce with diced tomatoes, turn a simple sauté into a hearty dish with canned beans, add a splash of coconut milk to a stir-fry to keep it from becoming ho-hum.

Stock. I go through about a quart of stock a week. I use it to deglaze sautés and stir-fries, I use it to stretch oil-based pasta sauces, I use it to braise anything from chicken to endive, and as a base for quick soups. I find having chicken, beef and mushroom stock (for vegetarian options, I prefer mushroom stock over vegetable stock, which can taste like smushed carrots to me) on hand leaves me well-prepared for whatever the fridge presents.

Basic aromatics. If you eschew the Champagne vinegar, fine. If you skip on the bulgur or mushroom stock, that’s OK. But don’t let your pantry go without at least one head of garlic, one onion and shallot, and a knob of fresh ginger at all times. Those are like the primary colors of your pantry palette.

Spices. If the aromatics are your primary colors, spices are the rest of the rainbow. Yes, grinding (and oftentimes toasting) your own spices is preferable to shaking them out of a jar, but in all honesty, I don’t do that unless I have an abundance of time. Instead, I rely on small jars (so they stay fresh) of basic spices like cumin, coriander, cayenne (I noticed when I was organizing my spices recently that a disproportionate number start with C . . . hmmm), chile flakes, cinnamon, curry powder, bay leaves, fennel seeds (which I do take time to crush in my mortar and pestle), nutmeg and oregano. If you want to expand a bit further you could include cardamom (like a heady, perfumed cinnamon), juniper berries (great with duck and pork), turmeric, fennel powder, five-spice, allspice and star anise. Beyond that there are a slew of other spices and mixes, like various chile powders, sumac and zaatar. As a general rule, if a spice smells musty or dusty, toss it.

Salt. I’m a sucker for salt. It may sound simplistic, but having a medium-grained crystal salt (like kosher salt) to cook with and a separate, coarser salt to sprinkle on almost as a condiment has changed everything in my kitchen. And I continue to learn about how different finishing salts—red Hawaiian, black Cyprus, pink Brittany—each have a distinct flavor and texture that can be used to enhance a dish. If your market carries various salts in bulk (which, pinch me, mine just started doing), I encourage you try a few. At the very least, stock kosher salt and a simple finishing salt like Maldon.

Nuts. Nuts, like beans, are another one of those satisfying, protein and fiber-packed add-ons. I like to keep peanuts, walnuts and pecans on hand, which can span from stir-fries to salads.

And . . . A few other also-nices are a jar of raw, unfiltered honey (a staple in many of our vinaigrettes); dried chiles and mushrooms; and a variety of cooking wines like dry red and white, marsala, mirin (sweet rice wine), sake and Shaoxing rice wine.