8 Ways to Fix a Dish That’s Too Bland
You can probably blame acid—or the lack thereof—for mediocre flavor. Here's how vinegar and other sour ingredients can add some twang to any dish.
How many times have you tasted a dish, and no matter how much salt, pepper or seasoning you add, you still feel like it’s missing something? That “something” is probably acid. Our taste buds are happiest when the fats, salts, sweetness and acidity levels work together. Your dish is coming up short because it’s off balance.
Vinegar might be the first cooking acid you think of, but any sour ingredient in your kitchen works. Rummage through your fridge and pantry and get to know those sour ingredients. You’ll find everything from slight twangs to full-on mouth-puckering sharpness. Here are some of my favorite acidic ingredients.
I’m in love with vinegars. Not the distilled white vinegar you purchase by the gallon, although it has its place in the kitchen. I mean vinegars crafted from high-quality ingredients. You don’t have to be as obsessed as I am (I have nine different vinegars open at home), but I encourage you to have at least two to four kinds on hand. Some of my favorites are sherry vinegar, Champagne vinegar, apple cider vinegar and, of course, balsamic vinegar, which you can use to make this amazing Apple Balsamic Chicken.
Test Kitchen tip: Your local farmers market is a great place to find small producers who make amazing stuff with local ingredients. Be sure to taste the vinegars before you buy. The flavors and acidity levels vary dramatically.
2. Citrus Juice
Lemons and limes are the most acidic foods you can find in most kitchens. They are so tart, you may only need a small amount to really alter a recipe’s flavor. Start with a few drops, taste, and add more as needed. You can really taste the lemon at work in this Tuna with Citrus Ponzu Sauce.
Test Kitchen tip: Acidity levels will vary depending on the citrus variety, where it’s grown and its age. Juice is best squeezed directly into foods and beverages, which is why fruit slices are often used as garnish.
If you grow your own tomatoes, you can control some of the tartness, because the riper the tomato, the sweeter, less acidic it is. So leave yours on the vine according to taste. Canned tomato products become more acidic due to the canning process. Best Spaghetti and Meatballs gets its twang from tomatoes two ways: sauce and paste.
Test Kitchen tip: The acid in tomatoes helps other veggies maintain their crunch, so be sure to saute onions and other vegetables until they’re tender before adding any acidic ingredients.
4. Fresh & Dried Fruits
Berries, especially dried, are a great addition to baked goods. Those bright pops of tartness help balance out higher-fat ingredients in brownies, cakes and cookies, like these cranberry pecan oatmeal ones.
Test Kitchen tip: Dried and fresh fruit have roughly the same acidity levels. It’s the canned and frozen fruits that may be more acidic due to added preservatives.
5. Wine or Beer
I add wine or beer early when building sauces, or making soups and stews. Just like with the other ingredients above, acid levels vary, so I recommend pouring yourself a glass to taste before adding any to your recipe. That way you can see just how tart it is before you add any to your dish. Sherry and red wine come to play in this Favorite French Onion Soup.
Test Kitchen tip: Wine and beer are usually added early in the recipe so there is time to burn off the alcohol before other ingredients are mixed in. If you add it too late, you’ll end up with a strong alcohol flavor instead of the bright crispness you’re looking for.
6. Cultured Dairy
Cheese, sour cream, yogurt and any dairy item labeled “cultured” will add twang to a dish. Tzatziki sauce, like the one in this Gyro Salad with Tzatziki Dressing, is a great example.
Test Kitchen tip: Add sour cream or yogurt to make rich, delicious cakes. Dip chicken in buttermilk before breading and frying. Or sprinkle some crumbled feta or goat cheese on a salad or fried eggs.
7. Pickled, Brined or Fermented Foods
Storing perishable items in acidic solutions is one of the most basic forms of preservation, and can give the food a quality of its own, often regional in nature. Some iconic examples are preserved lemons from North Africa, sauerkraut from Eastern Europe (try it in this Pork Tenderloin with Cran-Apple Sauerkraut) and kimchi from Korea.
Test Kitchen tip: Adding sauerkraut to a slow cooker recipe surprisingly mellows out the flavors.
Most of the condiments we commonly reach for are made from vinegar or other acidic foods. We love soy sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard because they complement rich and fatty dishes. What do you have with your french fries? I love Homemade Mayonnaise on mine.
Test Kitchen tip: Instead of reaching for salt when cooking, add a little soy sauce instead. It contains sodium, helps brighten up the dish and is an umami powerhouse (but that’s another article).