Chef Tips for Home Cooks

Balancing Flavors

Balancing flavors is one of the most important parts of creating a good dish.  Flavours are like strings on a guitar.  On their own, they sound okay, but when played harmoniously they make  Rock and Roll.  Sweet, Sour, Salty, and Bitter are the 4 main flavours to balance in any recipe.  You don’t necessarily need all 4 in every recipe, but if one-note sticks out, your chord will be out of tune.

For example, if I started with a sea scallop, which is sweet, I would balance it with bitter arugula, sour blood orange, and sea salt.  If I wanted to make a side dish of roasted carrots(sweet), I could add sea salt, fresh Meyer lemon juice (or vinegar) and fresh herbs.

The key to this is you really need to taste your food.  Taste your food often throughout the cooking process. Taste before and after adding ingredients and see how the flavours work together.  In the restaurant, I taste everything.  That certainly doesn’t mean I take a bite out of every steak that leaves the kitchen, but I do taste all of the sauces, both as they are served and while they are being prepped.   If something is not right, I’ll add what it is missing.  When you are tasting your recipe and checking for balance, the most important thing to remember is it is MUCH easier to add more than it is to take away.  If you add too much salt, you need to compensate with something sweet or acidic.

Some ingredients might be 2 different flavours simultaneously (green apples and pineapple are both sweet and sour at the same time).  Some ingredients change when cooked, but don’t get confused.  This isn’t the easiest thing to understand, but once you get it down, it becomes second nature.

Whether you are racking your brain trying to evenly balance your flavours, or looking for a perfect substitution to create something new and exciting check out my list below of ingredients.

Here is a list of ingredients separated by their flavour

Sweet Flavors

  • Apples (some are sweet some are sour)
  • Pears
  • Candied bacon (also salty)
  • Banana, ripe (unripe bananas are bitter)
  • beets
  • cantaloupe and other melons
  • carrots
  • cherry (also sour)
  • caramel
  • milk chocolate (dark chocolate is bitter)
  • coconut milk (coconut water is bitter)
  • corn
  • crab
  • figs
  • honey/maple syrup
  • hoisin sauce
  • ketchup
  • grapes
  • ripe mangoes (unripe are sour)
  • onions, shallots
  • peaches
  • pineapple (also sour)
  • pumpkin
  • berries (sometimes sour)
  • snap peas
  • sweet potato
  • oranges, tangerines, clementines
  • Sour Flavors
  • green apples
  • cream cheese, sour cream, mascarpone, creme fraiche
  • goat cheese
  • blackberries and other tart berries, all unripe berries
  • grapefruit
  • kiwi
  • kumquat
  • lemons and limes
  • blood orange
  • pickled ingredients
  • plum
  • rhubarb
  • tomatillos
  • yoghurt
  • yuzu (Asian citrus) Ponzu sauce(tastes like citrus and soy sauce combined, also salty)
  • buttermilk
  • some cheeses
  • Salty Flavors
  • Anchovies and sardines
  • Bacon
  • capers (also bitter)
  • caviar
  • sausages
  • clams (also slightly sweet)
  • soy sauce, ponzu sauce, fish sauce
  • ham and other cured meats
  • gravlax (smoked salmon)
  • nuts and seeds
  • olives
  • oysters
  • roe and caviar
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Parmesan cheeses and other hard cheeses
  • Bitter Flavors
  • Arugula
  • beers, particularly “hoppy” beers like IPA
  • collard, mustard, cheese, and beet greens
  • broccoli, broccoli rabe, broccolini, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and other cabbages
  • coffee, tea, chicory and other caffeinated beverages
  • dark chocolate, pure cocoa,
  • eggplant (particularly larger eggplants)
  • orange marmalade
  • Kale, spinach, swiss chard and other leafy green vegetables
  • turnips

Balancing the 4 main flavours will help improve your dishes and make substituting flavours much easier to understand.  Once you grasp the technique of balancing flavours, your opportunities for making great tasting dishes expand greatly. For a more in-depth look at different flavour combinations, substitutions, and uses.


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