Seasonings Beyond Salt and Pepper

While salt and pepper are always a consideration for final tweaks, our test cooks also look to a range of other pantry ingredients that can help bring a dish into just the right balance.

Toward the end of developing a recipe in the test kitchen, tasters often make comments such as “it tastes just a bit flat” or “a smidge lean” or “too rich.” While salt and pepper are always a consideration for final tweaks, our test cooks also look to a range of other pantry ingredients that can help bring a dish into just the right balance. Such ingredients encompass sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (or savory) flavors; we also may adjust with ingredients that add richness. Just a small quantity of one of these finishing touches (from a pinch to 1/2 teaspoon) is a good starting place. Here are a few of our favorites.

IngredientWhat It DoesSuggested Uses
SweetGranulated or brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, mirin, sweet wines or liqueurs, jams or jelliesRounds out sharp, bitter, or salty flavorsSalsas, relishes, sauces, vinaigrettes, bitter greens
SourVinegars, citrus juice, pickled vegetables (such as jalapeños)Adds brightness to flat-tasting dishes, cuts through richness or sweetnessMeaty stews or soups, creamy sauces and condiments, braised or roasted meats
BitterDry or prepared mustard, fresh ginger, chili powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, dark chocolate, horseradish, cayenne pepper, coffee, citrus zest, beerCuts sweetnessBarbecue meats, slaws, chopped salads, chili
UmamiWorcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, fish sauce, anchovy, mushrooms, tomato paste, miso, sherryAdds meatiness, depth, or earthiness; boosts dishes that taste a bit flatBolognese and other meaty sauces, hearty vegetarian sauces, soups, deli sandwich fillings such as tuna salad
RichHeavy cream, butter, olive oilRounds out flavors, adds viscosityVegetable-based soups, sauces

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