Understanding flavor is a fundamental part of cooking process, as it creates a base from which your preferences are born. 

Knowing what tastes you'll find in each food, how they pair with other flavors, and their strengths and intensities will help you to better balance your dishes, and give you more confidence in your preparation. 

The most recognized and written about flavor profiles are bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami (savory). But there are other flavors that add layers as well, such as spicy and creamy. There are also certain foods that also give off their own pungent tastes that really stand out in a dish.  Get to know them all below.

Want to skip to a particular flavor? Click on its name below.


Generally, the word bitter insights a contorted face and expressions of distaste from people. But, little do some realize, that the element of bitter taste helps tremendously to balance out other flavors like sweet and salty. Think of it as a background player rather than the lead role. It has a sharp, and sometimes harsh, taste that often mellows once cooked like when sautéing greens.  

Foods To Think About

Pairs with...

 

Sweet

• Salty

• Creamy

 

 

These foods include items like coffee, espresso, dark chocolate, or raw cacao. Darker greens like kale or arugula and even spinach are also bitter foods, along with radishes, cabbage, raw broccoli, raw asparagus, and celery. Many herbs qualify under this heading, including parsley, rosemary, and basil. Even the skin of cucumbers and potatoes add a bitter quality to the food - the thicker the skin, the more bitterness it imparts. For fruits that have edible skins like apples, kiwi, mango, and stone fruits, those add bitterness, as well. (And, yes, you can eat mango and kiwi skin!)

If You Go Overboard

Try balancing your dish with a bit of sweetness, such as adding sugar, agave, honey, or fresh-squeezed juice, to mask the bitterness. This works particularly well in sauces. 

When making a salad with darker greens, be sure to toss it in a sweeter dressing that can help balance. Or try adding fresh fruit to the salad as an alternative.  

Saltiness can also balance a bitter dish. This is commonly seen in pesto, since basil is known to be quite bitter. The cheese added to the sauce helps mask the harshness of the herb. If you happen to be making pesto, adding more cheese can help balance the flavor if it's too bitter.

Depending on what other dish you're working with, adding more salt or flaking sea salt over the top of a finished dish can do the trick. But start small - be careful not to over do it.  

Adding an element of creaminess with a fat can also help reduce bitterness. These additions include oil, butter, creams or even avocado.  

Moderation is key when balancing a dish, no matter which way you flavor. When adding other ingredients, make sure you do so in small amounts, and taste as you add. 


When you taste a "salty" food, you're tasting, well, salt! Saltiness can be described as that feeling of dry mouth or as being tannic. It's also responsible for causing crazy thirst like nobody's business because salt absorbs moisture. Salt enhances everything, and is usually what's missing from a dish when it tastes bland. Salt brings everything together.

Kosher salt is best as an overall cooking seasoning. It’s coarse, making it easy to grab that “pinch” for any recipe that calls for it, and it dissolves quickly, adding immediate flavor. 

Flaked sea salt is great for use as a final touch, such as over eggs or salads, and all the way to sweet treats. 

Foods To Think About

Pairs With...

 

Sweet

• Salty

• Creamy

• Umami

• Sour

• Spicy

Besides actual salt or flavored salts, salty foods include soy sauce (even the low sodium kind), capers, olives, and harder cheeses like Parmesan or Pecorino. Cured meats, such as bacon, salami, etc. are cured with salt. Seafood, particularly canned fish like sardines or anchovies, has a natural saltiness to them due to higher sodium content from the ocean. Even if those cans say "unsalted," that usually means no "added" salt.  

If You Go Overboard

Try balancing your salty dish with a bit of sweetness by adding sugar, agave, or honey to mask the salty bite. 

Acidic foods, aka sour, also serves as a salt-balancer. Throwing in some citrus juice or vinegar can help quash saltiness. 

If those additions don’t work, you can always try to dilute the dish with extra water, stock, broth, etc., which will reduce the strength of the flavor. 

You can also use fats like avocado, butter, or cream to help coat the mouth and balance saltiness. 

Moderation is key when balancing a dish, no matter which way you flavor. When adding other ingredients, make sure you do so in small amounts, and taste as you add.


Everyone is familiar with that mouth-puckering sensation of sour foods. It's tangy, it's tart, and makes your mouth feel like it's drying up as your taste buds go into shock. Whenever you have something acidic, sour is the main flavor. These bright ingredients like citrus juice, vinegar, and other acidic foods can help bring freshness to a dish. 

Foods To Think About

Lemons.jpg

Pairs With...

 

Salty

• Sweet

• Creamy

The first foods most people think about in the sour category are vinegars and citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, and grapefruit. But, actually, there are many other foods like Granny Smith apples, sourdough bread, kiwis, pineapples, green grapes, even red cherries. Buttermilk, unflavored yogurt, sour cream or creme fresh also qualify for the sour list. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, and even certain cheeses like goat and sheep's milk cheese have sour tang.  

If You Go Overboard

Adding salt is a good place to start when trying to counteract a highly sour food or dish. Some people put salt directly onto citrus fruits to eat them by themselves.

Or try a dash or two of sugar to balance and more evenly distribute flavors (this is the trick lemonade uses to be so addicting). 

Fats like avocado, butter, or cream will help ease that sour touch, particularly for sauces. Diluting can also help with sauces - add small amounts of water to a tomato sauce or stew that has too much tang. 


In this day and age, when we think sweet, we immediately think of highly addictive, sugar-filled candies, cakes, cookies, and puddings. Let's face it, they're addicting for a reason: they're truly mouth-watering. But, nature provides us with plenty of sweetness all on its own, which ignites our tastebuds and always leaves us wanting more. 

Foods To Think About

Carrots.jpg

Pairs with...

 

Bitter

• Salty

• Sour

• Umami

• Spicy

• Creamy

Obviously, as mentioned above, anything that uses cane sugar, agave, honey, molasses, corn syrup, etc, is considered sweet. But we like to focus on ripe fruits as our main sources of sweetness - the riper the fruit, the sweeter the taste. Some are sweeter than others, such as berries, purple grapes, oranges, and melons. Beets, carrots, bell peppers (especially red), cooked onions, butternut squash, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes are also included on the sweet spectrum. 

If You Go Overboard

Sweet dishes are relatively simple to balance because any other element can help reduce it intensity. 

You can add:

  • Vinegar or citrus
  • Spice or heat
  • Liquid like water or broth to a sauce
  • Salt
  • Creamy foods like avocado, butter, or milk

Savory, funky, and delicious, umami is a phenomenon that eventually couldn’t be ignored as an official taste. It's a tough flavor to describe, but is usually recognized as having a rich mouthfeel and earthy quality.

Foods To Think About

Pairs with...

 

Salty

• Sour

• Sweet

• Spicy

Grains and legumes play a hearty, savory role in our everyday eating, so they get top billing in the umami category. Fermented foods like soy sauce, sauerkraut, miso, fish sauce, etc., as well as mushrooms, tomatoes, seaweed, parsnips, and winter squash are also a part of this category. A few other honorable mentions include tree nuts, aged cheeses like parmesan and blue cheese, as well as smoked fish, dry-aged and cured meats, pork, and poultry.

If You Go Overboard

Umami flavors can be balanced with saltiness - salt itself or a salty food are both good options, so don't feel pressure to pick just one. 

Sour flavors, however, are often the best option for balancing savoriness.

Sweet foods can also help counteract savoriness and produce a more even flavor composition. 


Although spice hasn't officially been recognized as a major taste for our buds, it has such a huge impact on flavor that we couldn't ignore it. Spiciness helps to balance and brighten dishes, giving them an extra boost in the mouthfeel department.

Foods To Think About

Pairs with...

 

Salty

• Sweet

• Umami

• Creamy

Chili peppers, both dried and fresh, have a whole range of spice levels that vary from pepper to pepper. Many other spices, however, can also add that same level of spice to a dish like cloves and cinnamon. Ginger and garlic are two other aromatics that add kick, while raw onions give sharpness to dishes for adde oomph without too much heat. 

If You Go Overboard

Sweet and creamy foods really help counteract spice levels: sweet foods counteract the spice, creamy ones coat your tongue, relieving the heat. 

A few second rate alternatives are: salt, which can help, but doesn’t always do the trick; and some sour foods like lemon or lime juice, which can help cut down on spiciness without completely diminishing it.  


Technically, creamy isn't as much a taste as it is a mouthfeel, but it's worth mentioning since it alters how we taste certain foods. Not only does it coat our mouths, adding a velvety element to our dishes, but it also can help counteract the flavors mentioned above. Adding creaminess to a dish helps enliven those flavors, as well. 

Foods To Think About

Pairs with...

 

Bitter

• Salty

• Sour

• Sweet

• Umami

• Spicy

Dairy is a go-to from the creamy category: cream, butter, and softer cheeses instantly come to mind. Animal fats and oils are fabulous creamy additions because not only do they coat the tongue, but, when emulsified, can also alter the entire composition and texture of sauces and dressings. Egg whites can also add creaminess when properly whipped. Some produce options include avocados, apple sauce, and bananas which add creamy texture and moisture to dishes, particularly baked goods. 

If You Go Overboard

Since creaminess is more of a texture-based component, it's hard to have a dish be "too creamy." More likely, you'd have a dish be too thick, at which point you can dilute it with some sort of liquid until it reaches your desired consistency. Sometimes adding too much creaminess can overpower other flavors, causing the dish to taste bland. In this case, try adding sour flavors like citrus juice or salt to brighten the taste again.