How to make things taste good

February 3, 2015

How to make things taste good? Salt, acid, fat, sugar / JillHough.com

Often in cooking classes, I’m asked some version of this same question—how do you make things taste good?

My answer? Salt, acid, fat, and sugar.

Wha…???

Let me elaborate.

You’ve just created a dish. Do you love it? If the answer is yes, then—yay!—your dish is complete.

If not, you have to sleuth out what it needs. Here are the things to consider—the tools in your make-it-taste-good arsenal, if you will—and the order to consider them in.

1. Salt

Salt helps your ingredients sing. Without enough of it, you’re not getting all you can out of them. Another way to say that is, you can’t truly assess what you’ve got until it’s properly salted, because proper salting ensures you’re getting all that’s there.

Try another bite of your dish with three grains of salt sprinkled on top. Is it better or worse? If the answer is better, season the whole dish and do it again—taste a bite as is, taste a bite with three more grains of salt, and if the second bite is better, add salt to the whole dish. And keep doing that until a bite with three more grains of salt is worse.

Notice I didn’t say to keep doing it until it seems like you’ve added enough salt. Or until you can’t believe you’d need more.

Don’t be guessing about this most critical flavor enhancer.

2. Acid, fat, and sugar

If, after salting, you’re still not in love with what you’ve created, the next things to consider are acid, fat, and sugar.

So taste and ask yourself, does it need a tickle of brightness? If so, add acid.

(By “acid” I mean an acidic ingredient—like vinegar, lemon juice, or wine.)

Not sure? A la the salt exercise, try the teeniest tiniest touch of acid on just one bite.

On the other hand, maybe your dish is too tart? If that’s the case, your dish needs softening—typically but not exclusively, fat softens acid in a savory dish and sugar softens acid in a sweet dish. Fat is also a flavor carrier—so sometimes merely adding fat will enhance the overall taste of a dish.

(Fat could be butter, oil, or something fatty/creamy like mayonnaise, milk, or cheese. Sugar could be any sweetener or sweet food.)

About 85% of the time, adjusting salt, acid, fat, and sugar will result in a dish I love. If not, the next things to consider are…

3. Additional flavors

Maybe your dish needs is too one-note and needs a little more going on?

If it has a lot of low, savory, earthy flavors, for example, maybe a tickle of something vernal and delicate would be nice—like chopped fresh parsley sprinkled on top of a hearty beef stew.

If it has a lot of vibrant, bright things going on, maybe it’d be nice to add something savory and earthy—like Kalamata olives in a leek and goat cheese omelet.

You don’t always need opposite or varied flavors to make a dish great—it’s just a place to look.

4. Additional texture

Sometimes adding texture can put a dish over the top—so think about adding crunch to something soft or softness to something crunchy. Creamy blue cheese in a crisp salad, for example, or crunchy nuts on ice cream.

As with flavors, you don’t always need opposite or varied textures to make a dish great—it’s just a place to look.

The most important thing is, if it isn’t love, keep at it. You only have so much time, money, and calories in a day—why settle for anything less?

How to make things taste good? Salt, acid, fat, sugar / JillHough.com


14 thoughts on “How to make things taste good

  1. Rita Held

    GOOD post, Jill ! I’ve been touting wine vinegars and cooking wines to add umph for over 20 years for my client Holland House — brochures, videos, pr …

  2. Jill Post author

    Oh, Rita, you’re just the absolute best. Thanks for the compliments! As an ace recipe developer, do you find yourself going through a similar procedure to create delicious dishes, or do you have other tricks up your sleeve???

  3. Rachel @ The Stay At Home Chef

    Jill, you worded it perfectly. So often it’s just a few little things that can make a dish really shine. Salt is definitely the number one thing I find missing in people’s dishes. I think people might be a little afraid of salt and that keeps them from really developing the flavor the dish needs. Such valuable advice. Sharing with my readers!

  4. Jill Post author

    I totally agree, Rachel! I often say that the difference between good cooking and great cooking are small details. I also agree about people being afraid of salt–and in some ways, I get it–you know, you spent all this time and trouble to make something, so you don’t want to ruin it with too much salt. That’s why I recommend trying just a bite with 3 grains more salt–it’s a safe way to test the difference that more would make.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and chiming in–and for sharing! Popping over to your site now :)

  5. Kirsten

    Jill,
    Terrific ideas, all of them! I esp like the idea of a smidgen of salt to a bite. I add salt as I’m cooking, but I came from a mom who cut salt out of everything and just really wouldn’t cook with it, so I know I under salt while cooking (baking is a different animal) because I was used to less.
    Ditto the herbs–some times that’s just the thing. On a whim this morning I added a couple of olives to the mushroom and feta egg bakes and they were just the ticket to balance things out.
    Thanks!

  6. Dee Dee (My Midlife Kitchen)

    Jill, I learned the benefit of having a list of pantry items in each category handy several years ago when I was building a BBQ sauce. Luckily, I actually wrote down what I added and how much, or I could have never replicated it! And now it’s a “family secret” recipe. :o) Gotta have those certain “somethings” to balance flavors just right!

  7. Jill Post author

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kirsten! I, too, used to avoid salt at all costs, until I had a salt awakening (here’s a post about it: http://jillhough.com/2009/09/how-i-learned-about-salt/). And even still, if you’re used to less, things will taste oversalted to you before they do to others. The point, though, is to salt to your threshold, whatever that is. Funny that you added olives to your eggs this morning–great minds thinking alike!

  8. Jill Post author

    Oh, Dee Dee! If only I could have back all those recipes I didn’t write down! And then there’s the one I followed to a T, but it obviously turned out wrong, but my family loved the error–I could never replicate it!

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting–happy barbecuing!!!

  9. Michelle@Healthiersteps

    I must say that salt is my friend and sometimes worry that I use way too much in my recipe. I notice that many bloggers put salt to taste but I like to put the exact measurement for I fear the dish won’t taste right without the proper amount of salt. Thanks for sharing :)

  10. Jill Post author

    Thank YOU for sharing, Michelle! I hear you re: wanting to put at least some indication of a salt amount for fear that without enough, your dishes won’t shine in someone else’s kitchen. If you have concern about your own tastes being too salty, you can always have a few friends disaster-check a recipe for you, to see if your salt-o-meter needs calibrating. I find it really helpful to check in with others occasionally.

  11. Jill Post author

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Nutmeg Nanny! I think salt is the #1 tool to make food taste great, too. Most of the time, if I taste something and think “meh,” it just needs salt!

  12. Jill Post author

    Thanks for stopping by, Miranda, and for commenting! Just popped over to your site–your Cherry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Frosting look like a pretty dang perfect combination of things that taste good!

Leave a Reply

Your email will not be published. An asterisk indicates a required field.