Food

How to fix food that's too salty, sour, spicy or sweet

The holidays almost always have us cooks rushing, and rushing means mistakes — everybody makes them, even pros. But what pros have in their pocket is an arsenal of dish-fixing know-how to MacGyver their way through almost any situation. I happen to believe knowledge must be shared and so here are my top tips for how to fix common seasoning mistakes for foods that are too salty, sour, spicy, flat and sweet.

If your food is. . . too salty

"Salt to taste" has a wide spectrum, but when something is definitely too salty how do you walk it back? Supposedly boiling whole potatoes in your excessively salty broth will soak some up, but research indicates that this is a myth, the potato soaks up all the flavors not just the salt.

First of all, adding starches such as rice or noodles to your soup, or pureeing some rice to add as a thickener to your stew will help balance out the salt. Lemon or vinegar and some sweetener will mask saltiness, too. But ultimately dilution is the main solution; you have to dump some and start adding liquid and ingredients to make up for it. Most other seasoning fixes come down to the same principle, dilute and distract with opposing flavors.

Pasta with Italian Sausage, Tomato Sauce and Crispy Sage
John Alberti's Pasta with Italian Sausage, Tomato Sauce and Crispy Sage
Nathan R. Congleton / TODAY
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4
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If your food is. . . too sour or acidic

Ever made a salad dressing or tomato sauce that makes your mouth pucker a little bit too much? Add a pinch of sugar and some salt for a quick fix.

If your food is. . . too flat

Try squeezing a bit of lemon or adding a teaspoon of vinegar and watch your soup, or stew, or sauce brighten things up like sun on a rainy day. A little white vinegar is the key ingredient in star chef Eric Ripert's hearty, one-pot beef goulash recipe.

Slow-Cooker Chicken Chili
Slow-Cooker Chicken Chili
Grace Parisi / TODAY
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Servings:
8
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If your food is. . . too spicy

You've got a few options here: Acid helps, like a squeeze of lime. So does sweetness, such as chutney. Even better, add in some fat like avocado and dairy like sour cream, avocado, mayonnaise or yogurt.

Tiramisu Cake
Alejandra Ramos' tiramisu and peach upside down cake
Nathan R. Congleton / TODAY
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If your food is. . . too sweet

Whatever you do, don’t add salt because it will bring out the sweetness even more. Here, acid, bitterness and heat will counteract excessive sweetness, and add layers of flavor.

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