When it comes to seasoning food, it pays to go slowly: If you’ve added too much salt, sweetener, or spice to a dish, the damage is usually done. In mild cases, however, the overpowering ingredient can sometimes be masked by the addition of another ingredient from the opposite end of the flavor spectrum.
On a simple sensory level (on the tongue), this works because there are specific interactions between taste stimuli that enhance or suppress each other. These are very case-specific; e.g., bitterness is suppressed by saltiness, but not vice versa.
There's also a more general effect that can happen on the central processing level called mixture suppression: When we experience two (or more) tastes simultaneously, the intensity is less than if we experienced one taste on its own.
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Preventing Overly Seasoned Food
To avoid overly seasoned food in the first place, it's important to account for the reduction of liquids when seasoning a dish—a perfectly seasoned stew, for example, will likely taste too salty after several hours of simmering. Your best bet is to season with a light hand during the cooking process and then taste your food and adjust the seasoning just before serving.
If things still go awry, consult the following tips for ideas.
If Your Food Is Too Salty
Consider adding a little water if your soup, sauce or stew is overreduced. You can also try adding an acid such as vinegar; lemon or lime juice; canned, unsalted tomatoes; or a sweetener such as sugar, honey, or maple syrup.
If Your Food Is Too Sweet
Add an acid or seasonings such as vinegar or citrus juice; chopped fresh herbs; a dash of cayenne pepper; or, for sweet dishes, a bit of liqueur or espresso powder.
If Your Food Is Too Spicy
Add a sweetener such as sugar, honey, or maple syrup.
If Your Food Is Too Acidic
If Your Food Is Too Bitter
Add salt or an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice