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From blah to bravo: 5 ways to fix a bland recipe

A squeeze of lemon juice can brighten a soup or stew.  (Rey Lopez/For The Washington Post)
By Becky Krystal Washington Post

Have you ever followed a recipe to a T and then found it sort of … blah? Recently, a reader in the live Q&A with the Washington Post found themselves in this very conundrum with a sorta soup, sorta stew.

Post staff writer Daniela Galarza has previously written about how to fix overseasoned dishes, but there are also plenty of easy ways to address the opposite problem. Here, broken into a few larger flavor categories, are some suggestions on how to turn your bland food into something brilliant.

1. Salt

As Samin Nosrat says in her book “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” it matters when you use salt. “Add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form. A smaller amount of salt applied while cooking will often do more to improve flavor than a larger amount added at the table.” That being said, even if you have salted your food before cooking, sometimes you need to adjust to taste at the end, to sharpen and complement other ingredients. This is something I always do with soup, pesto and tomato sauce. Add a little at a time until you’re happy with the result.

Now is also the time to bust out those fancy finishing salts for when you want a briny pop of flavor, as well as visual and textural panache. Aim for something with flakes that you can pick up. Leave quicker-dissolving fine sea salt or table salt for times when you want it to meld into the finished dish.

Salt-forward pantry staples are another way to go and can add other dimensions of umami-rich flavor. Contenders include soy sauce, fish sauce, parmesan cheese and Worcestershire sauce.

2. Acid

One of my favorite ways to perk up a bland dish is with a splash of acid. These types of ingredients are great especially if you’re trying to cook with less salt. This is one reason to have at least one lemon in my refrigerator produce drawer at all times. A squeeze of lemon juice can brighten a soup or stew and even a grilled or seared steak. If you’d like to always have juice or zest on hand for seasoning, try freezing in small portions, such as in an ice cube tray (another Q&A reader likes Soupercubes for stashing extra ingredients). You can toss the frozen juice or zest straight into a hot soup or stew.

Don’t overlook vinegars, either. Sherry vinegar is a go-to for tweaking finished dishes, though cider and rice vinegars work well, too. Regular distilled white vinegar can be a bit harsh and one-note for this purpose. Balsamic vinegar can shine in the right circumstances as long as you keep in mind the dark color and sweetness it brings.

Vinegar is one component of mustard, so that’s another option when you’re looking for an ingredient to cut through the fog.

3. Chile peppers

Adding something spicy is a sure way to transform an underseasoned dish. And there’s lots to choose from.

Options for hot sauces span the world, whether you’re interested in harissa, Sriracha, Cajun pepper hot sauce (i.e. Tabasco) or another flavor profile. Since tolerance for spicy foods varies, it’s typically best to let individual diners select the type and amount of hot sauce they prefer, which goes for the other possibilities listed here as well.

Crushed red pepper flakes are another accessible, shelf-stable pantry option. For something with a milder heat, consider Urfa chile flakes, from Turkey, or Aleppo-style pepper, originally from Syria but now typically sourced from Turkey.

Don’t forget about spicy condiments with more ingredients, either. I’ve been known to improve a dish with a pile of kimchi or a spoonful of chili crisp.

4. Sugar

The goal is not to fix a dish by making it saccharine, and if you add a little sugar or a similar ingredient to something savory, it’s unlikely you will actually taste the sweetness. But as with salt, a judicious amount of something with sugar, even a teaspoon, can enhance other flavors and bring balance.

So, yes, that’s why I might add a pinch of sugar to my tomato sauce. I will also add a few drops of honey to a homemade vinaigrette to balance the acid and, bonus, help emulsify the dressing. Honey, maple syrup or agave can elevate a meh bowl of oatmeal or even bland, underripe fruit, which we’ve all dealt with.

5. Fresh herbs

To guarantee they retain their color and flavor, fresh herbs are often added at the end of cooking anyway, making them an easy solution for bland dishes. Parsley can do so much more than garnish, and it’s an excellent way to inject a final hit of “mildly bitter, refreshing and grassy” flavor, as Post staff writer Aaron Hutcherson describes it.

While some favor generous heaps of cilantro, be aware that plenty of people find it tastes like soap. Thyme, scallions, basil and chives are other assertive additions to play around with.