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How to Use the 5 Basic Tastes to Cook Complementary Meals

A family cooking at home, dumping ingredients from a cutting board into a skillet.
George Rudy/Shutterstock

It’s incredible how sensitive our taste buds are, and how ingredients can work together to complement one another. Here’s how to use the five basic tastes to create a balanced experience.

Taste and Flavor

If you ever watch cooking competitions on TV, you’ve probably noticed the chefs often taste-test the food along the way. This is how you gauge the flavor and adjust anything that’s off, including texture.

While “taste” and “flavor” are often used interchangeably, these two words are, in fact, very different. Flavor refers to the texture, smell, and taste of food. Taste, on the other hand, is your taste buds recognizing if something is sweet, salty, bitter, umami, or sour. In other words, flavor is a sensory experience, while taste is more of an alerting sensation.

Although one or two tastes will usually dominate a meal, it often takes a few to balance it into a work of genius. Here’s how to use those buds to build a recipe from scratch, or fix a meal that just isn’t right.

Sweet

Sweet ingredients include sugar, maple syrup, fruits (bananas, berries, figs, and dates), as well as some veggies (like sweet potatoes). Sweet flavors add a unique depth to salty dishes, which is why many of us love salted-caramel foods.

If a meal is too sweet, you might be able to fix it, depending on the ingredients you have on hand. To keep things simple, fix an overly sweet dish by adding sour or bitter ingredients to it. A squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar will often do the trick, as well.

Use the power of sweetness to take the edge off a prepared dish that’s overly bitter, like some honey drizzled on grapefruit.

Salty

A fresh soft pretzel, sprinkled with salt.
Marie C Fields/Shutterstock

Think of salt as a flavor enhancer. When used right, its taste can improve and balance out a meal. You can accomplish this with other ingredients, as well, including soy sauce, cheeses, olives, and cured meats, like bacon or prosciutto.

If your dish is overly salty, there are a few ways to fix it. A splash of water might help to dilute the taste. A pinch (or two) of sugar can also coax out extra saltiness. A drizzle of honey, vinegar, or lemon juice will go a long way.

Finally, adding salt (or salty-tasting ingredients) to foods that are too bland or bitter will also do the trick, and is always a good rule of thumb.

Bitter

In comparison to the other basic tastes, people tend to be more sensitive to bitterness. From an evolutionary standpoint, the bitter taste was recognized as poisonous during the time of hunters and gatherers.

However, in recent years, bitterness has become wildly popular for many. Brussel sprouts, kale, and arugula have all gained fame, as have the hoppy IPAs synonymous with the modern craft beer revolution.

Other ingredients that add a bitter taste to a dish include horseradish, escarole, and dark chocolate. If your meal is too sharp, simply add a sweet component, like sugar, honey, or maple syrup.

Sour

Much like bitterness, we tend to be sensitive to sourness on its own. Yet, when combined with the right ingredients, a sour taste can brighten up a dish like nothing else. You can soften spicy foods or add essential flavoring to a bland dish with just a squeeze of lemon or lime.

If you find you’ve created something with too much sour tanginess, a sweet ingredient or a pinch of salt often does the trick.

Buttermilk, sour cream, vinegar, lemon, limes, and sauerkraut (and other fermented foods) are all sour-tasting ingredients.

Umami

The most recently added taste is umami, which is Japanese for “good flavor.” It’s often described as savory, meaty, or earthy. Umami can add all sorts of oomph to a variety of dishes.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor-enhancing food additive, is often added to dishes to provide the distinctive umami taste. Seasonings, condiments, fast-food (especially Chinese food), and processed meats all usually contain MSG to intensify the flavors.

Soy and tomato sauce, broths, mushrooms, and cheese are all ingredients that contain this taste. You can use any of those to round out a dish that seems to be missing something.

If you feel something you’ve cooked up has too much umami, balance it out with some of the ingredients you can use for the other four other basic tastes.


While we categorize food and culinary art, it’s important to remember that science plays a significant role when it comes to taste. So, use your creativity and experiment in your “lab” along the way.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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