This super important concept will bring your culinary creations to the next level. And it’s very easy to apply. You probably heard about these three and their relationship before:
The goal of a dish (e.g. stew, soup, sauce) is to balance them. The same principle works when combining multiple dishes. For example: Salty oven-roasted potato wedges with a home-made sweet and sour ketchup.
Why is that? Well, that’s what our taste buds perceive as a delicious and rounded out flavour experience. Most restaurants you ever ate at probably make use of this concept, and if not, chances are you didn’t go there a second time.
Think of balsamic vinegar, for example. Most people could drink this stuff straight out of the bottle! Guess why: It’s salty, sweet and sour.
When cooking, always try your dish before playing with these three, though. Some veggies, such as tomatoes, already have a “sour” component. On the other hand, sweet potatoes or parsnip already add a sweetness.
But hold on: Before throwing loads of refined white sugar or agave syrup in your tomato sauce, keep on reading for a little more nutritious choices.
How to accomplish this balance in a healthy way
When ever I add something to a dish, I look for the healthiest and most nutritious option available (according to my current knowledge). That comes down to: As unrefined and/or whole-food as possible.
So let me share some practical suggestions based on that.
Salt is not equal salt.
There’s a lot of information out there, but the bottom line is: Some salts like the one from the Himalayas actually contains beneficial minerals and trace elements. Table salt, on the other hand, is so processed that potential nutrients are pretty much all gone.
Should you decide to drop table salts (often enriched with iodine, which our bodies require from a food source), make sure to get some algae into your diet. My favourite are Ao Nori flakes.
Despite the fact that some salts are nutritious, keep it as low as possible, as we tend to overdose ourselves with salts. If you’re looking for nutrition, better focus on getting a rainbow of mineral- and vitamin-rich colours on your plate instead! 🍅🍆🥕🍋🥬
Adding juice of a freshly squeezed lemon or lime will add a beautiful acidity and freshness to your dish.
You can control how much you want to notice their flavour, though:
Adding it in an earlier stage of cooking will soften the flavour until you’re done cooking. But the acidity remains.
When added towards the end of the cooking (or sprinkled on top when serving) it will taste more intense and fresher. Additionally it will keep more of its heat sensitive vitamins.
Alternatively you can also use a vinegar of your choice (apple cyder vinegar is my favourite). This works great in stews, soups or spreads. Add little by little, though. And don’t worry if it tastes very apple-cyder-vinegar-y right after adding it. The flavour will soften as you keep cooking.
If a dish tastes too sour, you can balance that by adding something sweet. But keep in mind:
Sweetener is not equal sweetener.
For example: Can you sense the difference between refined white sugar and dates? Right, the second option is sweet and actually contains nutrients (because it’s a whole-food). Science-based nutrition expert Dr. Michael Greger has a little video on this topic.
So if resources and tools allow, I always choose a whole-food sweetener. This could be dried fruits (e.g. dates, raisins), or even a fresh fruit!
And here’s how I do it: Soak dried fruits in warm water for about 10 minutes, then blend. Or simply blend any fresh fruit. This sweet and nutritious mix can then be added to any dish.
Sometimes there’s a lack of time, tools or resources, though. So, at the moment of writing, here’s my personal and incomplete list of more convenient yet nutritious sweeteners (top down):
- Date powder (whole dates, dried and pulverized)
- Date syrup (a little more processed than the powder, but still very rich in nutrients)
- The rawest and darkest cane sugar I can find (still contains all the mineral rich molasses)
- Sugar cane molasses (famous for their iron content, infamous for their distinct flavour)
- Maple syrup
Be gentle, though. A little sweetness can go a long way.
So, and who are their friends?
In addition, there are even more ways to satisfy our taste buds!
The 4th “S” in the family would be spicy. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about “Indian-style-runny-nose-and-dripping-forehead” type of spicy.
Most people use black pepper as a default to add some sharpness. Try adding a dash of (smoked) paprika or a couple of chilli flakes. That adds just that little extra sensation on the tongue that some people (maybe not kids) enjoy.
Besides sweet, salty, sour and bitter, Umami (Japanese for “pleasant savoury taste”) is considered as our 5th taste receptor.
To keep it short: It’s this “wow, this taste amazing” kind of feedback people give when eating a dish that contains Umami. You can find lots of articles online that go into more detail.
The winner in this category is by far soy sauce. Or its gluten-free friend Tamari. No need to explain any further, almost everyone knows and loves this black gold. When adding only very little to a dish, it is not as dominant, but still adds that little something.
Here’s some other ingredients you can add to boost the flavours:
- Dried tomatoes
- Dried mushrooms
- Tomato paste
This is it!
May you and your creations be well balanced! 🙏✨