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Flavor Balancing and How to Fix a Recipe

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Despite what’s often a popular opinion, healthy cooking can be full of flavor. Not so-so flavor, but the lip-smacking, dream-about-it-all-day kind. I’m just as interested in making meals satisfying and delicious as I am in making them nutritious. That’s why I carefully craft the flavors in my recipes, designing them from the ground up to change the perception of how good good-for-you food can be.

How do I achieve this? It’s all about balance. As a dish takes shape, I work to incorporate four key taste elements — sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But there comes a time in life when a recipe falls out of balance and becomes too salty, too sweet, too spicy, or too bitter. No need to panic, most recipes can be saved. All we need is to learn a few tricks to mend them.

Below I will be talking about the purpose of salt, sweet, sourness, bitterness, healthy fats, and pungent and spiciness in recipes. Our ability to sense these flavors comes from the receptors on the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and in the back of the throat. I will dive into the shallow end of the culinary pool to discuss their purpose, the different types, what to do if your recipe falls out of balance, and various forms in which these flavors come in. All of this will help you decide perhaps which is the best route to go based on the recipe at hand. I say the shallow end of the pool because each of these components have books written about them and there is far too much information to share here. This guide will help give you the basics.

Tips to Never Forget

  1. Never shake dry spices or herbs over the bowl. Lids can pop off and dump a cloud into your pile of ingredients. This situation usually can’t be saved.
  2. Same goes with liquids. If you are using a measuring cup, do not hold it over the bowl of ingredients. Do this outside of the bowl and then pour it in from the measuring cup. I have had many mishaps where I have overpoured liquid sweeteners or melted oils into the bowl of ingredients.
  3. If at all possible, taste test each ingredient before adding it. Below are a few examples as to what can affect the outcome of a recipe.
    • Nuts can go rancid.
    • Dried spices lose flavor over time and need to be replaced typically every six months.
    • Liquid fats can go rancid.
    • Avocados can be very bitter if unripe.
    • Peppers are unpredictable when it comes to the level of heat in them.
    • Unripe vegetables and fruit will affect the outcome of a recipe.

When it comes to salting food, whether adding it into a recipe or sprinkling it on top of a dish, one needs to start with a light hand. You can always add more, but it can be challenging to tame down an over-salted dish. Books have been written about salt, so if this is a subject that fascinates you, there are plenty of resources out there to fill your curiosity. Today, I am going to be hitting some main points that are important to know when starting in the kitchen.

The Purpose of Salt

  1. Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient.
  2. Its presence perks up the depth and complexity of other flavors as the ingredients meld.
  3. It is multidimensional; it has a flavor all on its own as well as enhancing the flavor of other ingredients.
  4. Salt provides a balance between the sweetness and acidity by decreasing the sourness of acid and increasing the sweetness of sugar. A salty flavor should not be discernible when using it to adjust the balance of flavors.
  5. Salt typically goes into a recipe while being made as well as being sprinkled on top of the completed dish.

Types of Salt – It makes a difference!

Pink Himalayan Sea Salt

Sea Salt

Table Salt (AKA refined salt)

Kosher Salt

The recipe is too Salty

  1. If your recipe is too salty, try to balance with sweet, fatty, or sour.
    • To fix a sauce or soup that has too much salt, for example, add a dash of sweetness. Or if possible, dilute with a non-salted liquid.
    • Lemon juice, vinegar, or whatever the acid may be, can become your saving grace. Use a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of a mild vinegar to help mask some of the aggressive salt with a new flavor.
  2. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but you can double the recipe (minus the salt) then mix it in with the salty batch a bit at a time until you’ve reached your desired flavor.
  3. Always pay attention to the ingredients. Some may have natural salts in them such as celery.

Forms of Salt (but not limited to)

Sugar comes in many different forms and flavors. They often perform more than one role in any given recipe. Today, we are addressing the use of it in raw recipes. So we won’t be browning, melting, or caramelizing it. Learning to use the right type of sweetener in the right application will make all the difference.

The Purpose of Sweeteners

Types of Sweeteners


Dried Fruit

Liquid Sweeteners

The recipe is too Sweet

  1. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, a lot of recipes may seem too over the top for you. So my best advice when creating a recipe or following the instructions of another chef is to add a little and build up. If you’re not sure how much to decrease the sugar by, start by adding a small amount, such as a teaspoon, and then taste the dish. Continue to add more until your taste buds are satisfied. It’s easy to add more sugar, but it’s harder to balance the sweetness once it’s already in the dish.
  2. If your recipe is too sweet to balance it with sour, salty, bitter, spicy, or fatty ingredients, make sure whichever you use, compliments the rest of the ingredients.
  3. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice or a spoon of raw apple cider vinegar.
  4. Don’t, however, use salt because it might heighten the sweetness.

Forms of Natural Sweeteners (but not limited to)

The sour taste lends another flavor or sensation that is relatively familiar to us. It is primarily the result of acids such as citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, oxalic acid, and ascorbic acid in our foods. We often “pucker” when we encounter the sour taste, and it immediately moistens the mouth and increases the flow of saliva, which is very helpful for digestion.

The Purpose of Sourness / Acid / Tartness

  1. Sourness balances salty and sweet flavors.
  2. Sourness is a taste that detects acidity.
  3. It can reduce the amount of salt needed in your recipe. So use this as a tool if you need to reduce your salt intake.
  4. Adds a high note, a brightness.
  5. It keeps greens from oxidizing.
  6. The sour taste is digestive, so it fuels the appetite, increases salivary secretions, enhances the secretion of digestive enzymes, and stimulates metabolism overall.1

Types of Sourness / Acids


Lemon Juice

The recipe is too Sour

  1. If the recipe is too sour, then adjust the flavor with sweet, salty, fatty, or bitter ingredients, making sure whichever you use, compliments the rest of the ingredients.
  2. If cooked foods are part of your menu the heat from roasting certain bitter vegetables can cut some of the bitterness.
  3. Ever made a salad dressing or tomato sauce that makes your mouth pucker a little bit too much? Try adding a pinch of sugar and some salt for a quick fix.

Foods that Illustrate Sourness

Bitterness is the taste that a lot of people are most sensitive to, and it’s the reason why picky eaters don’t like a lot of healthy foods such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, dark leafy greens, herbs, spices, coffee, tea, and certain fruits. Still, a touch of bitterness helps create balance. While the bitter taste is often not appealing on its own, it can create balance in a recipe as well as add in extra health benefits. If you are confused regarding the difference between bitterness and sourness, think of bitterness as more of a sharp, unpleasant taste, while sourness is more acidic.

The Purpose of Bitterness

  1. It stimulates the appetite and helps bring out the flavor of the other tastes.
  2. The bitter taste is a powerful detoxifying agent and has antibiotic, antiparasitic, and antiseptic qualities.
  3. Bitter is highly alkaline.

Types of Bitter Foods

Dark leafy greens

The recipe is too Bitter

  1. If your recipe is too bitter, balance it with sweet, salty, or sour. Make sure whichever you use, compliments the rest of the ingredients.
  2. If your food is too bitter or the flavors of the other ingredients don’t seem to be coming through, add a dash of salt.
  3. Baking soda – even though this isn’t a raw product, it takes just a pinch to soften the bitter tones in a dish.

Foods that Illustrate Sourness

Not all fats are created equal, but the right ones can not only add amazing flavor, texture, and appearance, they can also offer up a lot of great health benefits. I tend to use what is referred to as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). They are rich in medium-chain fatty acids, which are easy for your body to digest, not readily stored by the body as fat, allowing them to infuse cells with energy almost immediately.

The Purpose of Fats

  1. Fats subdue flavor and create depth to a recipe. They can add comfort, richness, and a wonderful mouthfeel.
  2. Fats play an important role in making foods satisfying or making us feel full, which in return helps us from overeating.
  3. Fats and oils can alter a food’s appearance by creating a glossy or moist visual texture.
  4. Emulsifying fat into a liquid produces unique taste and texture qualities.
  5. Fat has the unique ability to absorb and preserve flavors.
  6. Fats also contain compounds that lend a specific taste of their own. The way fat coats the tongue and allows flavors to linger can also alter the taste experience.

Types of Fats


Coconut Milk

Coconut Butter

Coconut Oil

Nuts and Seeds

Cacao Butter

The recipe is too Fatty

  1. If the recipe is liquid based (i.e., soup), grasp an ice cube with your index and thumb, wrap a layer of paper towel around it and skim the surface where the oil has risen. The oil thickens from the cold and clings to the ice cube. You may need to repeat this process several times.
  2. Chilling the dish may help as well since the fats would firm up, making it easier to remove.
  3. If possible, try doubling the recipe except for the fat component to see if you can even it out.
  4. If you are making a nut or seed butter and it was overprocessed, it will become oily. Sometimes this can be remedied by stirring the oil back into the butter, whereas other times, it is just too difficult.

Foods that Illustrate Fats (but not limited to)

There are two factors at play in the level of heat perceived in any given food: the amount of a particular compound found within the food, as well as the sensitivity of your mouth’s receptors to that compound. Many foods naturally come with some heat. Peppers have capsaicin, ginger has gingerol, horseradish, hot mustard, and wasabi contain allyl isothiocyanate. It’s our job to balance that heat so you can enjoy your dish bite after bite.

The Purpose of Spicey and Pungent Flavors

  1. Adds drama and intensity.
  2. Remember that in the raw world, pungent and spicy ingredients must be used sparingly. Make sure to work them up to your heat tolerance. There is a great difference in the taste and heat level of raw and cooked ginger for example.
  3. When used delicately, it can transform a dish, but if used without caution, it can ruin a dish and any other foods that may follow.

Types of Spicy and Pungent Flavors

Horseradish – pungent/hot

Raw garlic – hot

Raw ginger – pungent/hot

Raw Onions – pungent

Peppers – hot and sweet

The recipe is too Spicy

  1. Acid helps, like a squeeze of lime.
  2. Adding some sweetness can help bring down the spiciness.
  3. Even better, add in some fat like avocado, non-dairy sour cream, mayonnaise, yogurt, or even cashew butter, almond butter, or Tahini.
  4. If possible, improvise by adding additional ingredients to dilute, and that will play well with the recipe while neutralizing the spiciness.
  5. Serve over a bed of zucchini noodles, shredded cabbage, or cauliflower rice to help disperse the heat.

Foods that Illustrate Spicy or Pungent Flavors


7 thoughts on “Flavor Balancing and How to Fix a Recipe

  1. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for the help!!!!

  2. beth says:

    I made sweet pickles and think I put to much turmic in them I don’t want to throw them out or mustard seed help plz

    • amie-sue says:

      Hello Beth,

      That is a tough one. But what do you mean, “you think” Have you tested the pickles to see if you like them without the brine? Did you use powdered or fresh turmeric? If fresh, can you strain it out? Did you make raw pickles or is this a cooked canning recipe? If you can’t handle the flavor, can you drain and rinse the pickles, placing them in a new fresh brine? I hope this gives you some ideas. Let me know. amie sue

  3. Nischitha says:

    I have made fudge brownies with salted caramel and coconut topping (SAMOA topping). I have added chopped pecans into brownies. Both of these together taste kind of sweeter. I want to make a crumb using flour, butter and sugar to plate the samoa brownie. What flavours go well with chocolate, caramel, coconut and pecans? What crumb can I make? Please guide me. I am planning to make this for a competition so I want to add few more components to the dessert at the same time well balanced and combined. Please help me. Thank you.

    • amie-sue says:

      Hello Nischitha,

      How about some warming spices like; cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, pumpkin spice, apple spice… just for some ideas? Good luck with your creation! amie sue

  4. Lisa Lowery says:


    We bought some expensive home made apple butter at the Farmers Market and it’s bitterly awful! I believe it’s got too much nutmeg in it, my grandbaby won’t touch it either! My first thought was to dump regular sugar in it… Ideas???
    Thanks in advance!

    • amie-sue says:

      Hmm that is a strong flavor to attempt to soften. There isn’t a whole lot that one can do… adding more spices wouldn’t do it… so my suggestion is to either add more apple butter (from a different producer) or toss it if it is that unbearable. You could use it as a flavoring itself and add small amounts to perhaps a soup, chili, spaghetti sauce, etc. I hope this helps and sorry for your purchase. Or, one last thought is to save it and go back to the Farmers Market to those who sold it and explain the flavor and ask if you can try a different bottle. It was either a batch mishap or the creator themselves just like that flavor profile. Good luck! Let me know if this helps, blessings. amie sue

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