“The amount of salt and pepper you want to use is your business. I don’t like to get in people’s business,” writes Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the introduction to her seminal “Vibration Cooking, or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.” I think about that a lot when I’m developing recipes, because it’s the truth: One person’s perfectly seasoned chowder, soondubu jjigae or pozole is another’s overseasoned mistake.
Then there are the actual mistakes that happen in the kitchen all the time. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve tipped a spice jar into a bubbling vat of stew, meaning to add just a sprinkle, but watching in horror as far too much oregano or chile flakes or allspice are swallowed up by the boiling waves. Adding too much salt is a common blunder, as is adding too much acidity or spicy heat. But half of learning how to cook, or becoming a better cook, is learning to have confidence in the kitchen. And there’s nothing that will make you feel more confident than knowing how to fix something when it’s broken.
Too much salt. It’s easy to over-salt anything, but especially dishes with multiple components or steps, such as soups, stews or sauces. If the recipe is based on a meat-based stock, or contains bone-in meat, know that bones are a source of sodium. Most store-bought stocks contain some salt, meat- or vegetable-based, and any stock will contribute saltiness to a final dish, especially if the broth reduced as the dish cooked.
Start by playing defense: “If more than one of the added ingredients is salty, especially for ingredients like miso, soy sauce or dried shrimp, I would wait to add any salt the recipe calls for until I’ve tasted it at the end,” says Nik Sharma, author of “Season,” and the new book, “The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes.”
But if it’s too late, there are a few things you can do. If it’s just a little bit too salty, sometimes a touch of sweetness will help, advises Andrea Bemis, author of the new book “Local Dirt: Seasonal Recipes for Eating Close to Home,” and co-owner of the Mt. Hood, Ore.-based Tumbleweed Farm. “I’ll add some honey, a tablespoon at a time, and taste to see if that helps balance the flavors,” she says. Sugar, maple syrup or molasses can work, too.
If a dish is extremely salty, you may need to do some slightly more involved doctoring. “Any good starch will suck out the excess salinity. You can put chunks of par-cooked potatoes in, let the dish simmer for a few minutes, taste, and then remove them,” Sharma says, noting that you can tie the potatoes up in cheesecloth to make them easier to fish out.
Potatoes are ideal because they won’t absorb too much of the broth and have a neutral flavor. Uncooked potatoes work, too, says Steve Samson, the chef and co-owner of Rossoblu in Los Angeles, especially for soups with a lot of liquid, or in the earlier stages of cooking. “I’ll add peeled potatoes and some extra water, since the potatoes will absorb some liquid as they cook, but this evens it out, and helps with the extra salinity,” Samson says.
Another starch Sharma adds to salty soups or stews is fresh sourdough bread. It’s sturdier than sliced white, so it won’t disintegrate into hot liquid, but it will absorb a lot of broth or sauce when you add it to a stew or soup. To compensate, you may need to add more water or broth and then check the seasonings again.
Both Samson and Bemis suggest bulking up any stews or soups that are overseasoned. “If the dish already has a lot of root vegetables in it, cook some more in a separate pot of water — without any seasoning — and then add them to the base, letting it simmer so the flavors even out,” Bemis says.
Samson notes that acidity and salinity can sort of trick the palate. “Often, at the restaurant, when someone said a sauce or soup was too salty, we discovered that it was actually the acidity that was off,” he says.
Too much acidity. Vinegar, citrus juices, wine and pickled and fermented vegetables can all bring acidity to a dish, balancing its richness and perking up its flavors. “I find that salt and acids play with each other. Acids can make a dish taste saltier than it is, so you have to keep that in mind when seasoning," says Samson. To fix something that’s too acidic, Samson will add something neutral, such as a full-fat dairy or potatoes, which can be pureed into a sauce or thick soup. “I’ll also reach for something sweet, maybe caramelized onions or honey, which can offset the sourness,” Samson says.
If a sauce or thicker stew is too acidic — but not too salty — Sharma says you can add baking soda, which is alkaline. “A teaspoon or less of baking soda will immediately react with the acid and turn it into a salt,” Sharma says. After adding the baking soda, taste the dish again to make sure it’s not too salty. “But don’t add too much baking soda, as it will start to taste brackish,” Sharma cautions.
Finally, some of the same tricks that help ease saltiness can help when a dish is too acidic: Bulking it up with more vegetables or replacing some of the liquid with unseasoned water or broth will help balance the final flavors.
Too much heat or spice. Generally speaking, accidentally overseasoning a dish with any one kind of mild spice or herb — cumin, for instance, or tarragon — can be balanced by adjusting the amount of salt, acidity or other complementary spices. But what if you’ve added too much heat? The flavors and sensations that chiles and peppercorns bring to dishes are unmatched and seductive. But when I’ve added too much of a good thing to my soup or stew, I drop in half a peeled apple. The flesh absorbs some of the excess seasoning while leaching out just a bit of sweetness to help balance the flavors.
Diluting the broth or base with water or stock can help, too, as can bulking up by adding more cooked — but unseasoned — vegetables or meat.
Aishwarya Iyer, the founder and owner of Brightland, a company that produces oils and vinegars, says she relies on fruit-forward vinegars to help balance spiciness. “I’m a home cook and abide by my parents’ and grandparents’ way of cooking, cooking by taste,” she says, “so, recently, when I added too many chile flakes to a dish, I instinctively reached for blackberry balsamic vinegar, because the fermented fruit adds sweetness along with the acidity. It balanced the flavors, taking the edge off.”
“Personally, I don’t think anything can be too spicy,” Samson says with a laugh, “but I am always cooking for other people, so sometimes I have to tone it down.” He reaches for something sweet if a dish is just a little bit too spicy. When it’s really overpowering, he turns to dairy. Cream will save a sauce that’s fiery hot; an especially spicy soup or stew can be served with sour cream or yogurt on the side.
Sharma explains the science behind this: “If the soup already has dairy, or can handle some dairy stirred in, this is ideal, because dairy proteins have the ability to bind capsaicin,” the compound in chiles that makes them hot. “Nondairy won’t work for this as well, but milk protein casein works perfectly,” Sharma says. Bemis says she sometimes uses coconut milk, mostly because of its fat content and sweetness, if it makes sense for the particular dish.
Finally, about that adage to “season as you go,” both Sharma and Bemis caution home cooks against adding seasoning at every stage. Instead, they suggest that you “taste as you go.” Either way, Bemis says, “the important thing to remember is that almost everything can be saved.”
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