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Seasonings Beyond Salt and Pepper

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2017

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.

Ingredient What It Does Suggested Uses
Sweet Granulated or brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, mirin, sweet wines or liqueurs, jams or jellies Rounds out sharp, bitter, or salty flavors Salsas, relishes, sauces, vinaigrettes, bitter greens
Sour Vinegars, citrus juice, pickled vegetables (such as jalapeños) Adds brightness to flat-tasting dishes, cuts through richness or sweetness Meaty stews or soups, creamy sauces and condiments, braised or roasted meats
Bitter Dry or prepared mustard, fresh ginger, chili powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, dark chocolate, horseradish, cayenne pepper, coffee, citrus zest, beer Cuts sweetness Barbecue meats, slaws, chopped salads, chili
Umami Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, fish sauce, anchovy, mushrooms, tomato paste, miso, sherry Adds meatiness, depth, or earthiness; boosts dishes that taste a bit flat Bolognese and other meaty sauces, hearty vegetarian sauces, soups, deli sandwich fillings such as tuna salad
Rich Heavy cream, butter, olive oil Rounds out flavors, adds viscosity Vegetable-based soups, sauces