Fixing a "meh" dish is often easier than you think. Try these tricks the next time your food could use some help.
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Isn’t it frustrating when you take the time to make a recipe and it doesn’t come out quite right? You know, it's edible, but just not great. Well, it’s often easier to fix than you may think.

I started thinking about cooking by feel on a recent night while making salad dressing. It took quite a bit of tweaking to get it just right, but ultimately I got there.

Try these tricks the next time cooking doesn't go as planned.

Think of a recipe as a guide, not a blueprint

Many of you know this and are already in the habit of starting with a recipe and improvising based on your taste or what you have on hand. But if you're an exact recipe follower (you know who you are), trust me, you can become a by-feel cook. It’s easier than you think.

For example, here’s what happened with the dressing. I started with this Asian Sesame Dressing recipe (I was just making the dressing, to go on a different salad).

But I realized I didn’t have two key ingredients: shallot or tahini (or the suggested substitute peanut butter). I was skeptical of shallot’s place in the dressing, so I figured I could leave that out. Plus, I had this really interesting sesame seed-seaweed spice mix (Eden Organic Seaweed Gomasio, $3.25,, which I'd bought in a food-nerd frenzy (“Think of all the great things I can do with that!” But then I hadn’t done anything with it, of course). That could stand in for tahini, a sesame seed paste, right? So undeterred, I set off.

Rice wine vinegar, pepper, extra Gomasio (which I figured would grind up into a tahini-like paste), a little toasted sesame oil, a splash of mirin (to make up for the lack of sweetness from losing the shallot), a little coconut oil and some olive oil (so the coconut flavor wouldn’t overpower). Wrong wrong wrong. The sesame seeds didn’t fully grind up (apparently the Vitamix was too big for this job), and the flavor was off.

Balance the magic 3 flavors

What you need to know at this point is that if you’re making a dressing—or any sauce, really—and the flavor is off, there are 3 quick things to check. The magic 3 are, in no particular order: Salt, acid, sweetness. If you watch chefs on TV and see them adding a splash of this or a pinch of that and wonder what they’re doing, this is the balance they’re aiming for. Salt, acid, sweet.

For the salad dressing, it took some doing, but between miso paste (for saltiness; you could always use, well, salt), brown rice vinegar (acid; any vinegar would do, or try lemon, lime or orange juice), and mirin (sweetness—but honey, brown or white sugar or maple syrup all work well), I mostly got it.

One thing to remember when balancing salt/acid/sweet: Tread lightly. Don’t pour in ¼ cup vinegar or a tablespoon of salt. Start small—a splash, a pinch—and you can always add more.

Toward the end something was still missing. I realized the shallot would have given the dressing the bite it needed. Grr, I didn’t have a shallot. But, I had garlic, shallot’s less delicate and refined (but equally delicious) cousin. So I smashed a small clove and added it. The fat/acid balance is also crucial in dressings, so as I tweaked the seasoning I occasionally tossed in a splash of toasted sesame oil. In the end, the whole enterprise took around 5 minutes, and the result was a truly delicious salad.

Water is your friend

Do you often burn onions while trying to caramelize them? Water can help with this common problem, and so many other things. If your onions are browning too quickly or unevenly, pour a little water into the pan and lower the heat. Unless the onions are truly burned, the water will cool them down and even them out.

Or, to bump up the flavor in a stir-fry or skillet meal, remove whatever you’ve been cooking to a plate and deglaze the pan with a little water. Sure, you can use wine or broth, but often a bit of water is all you need to pull the tasty browned bits (the “fond,” in cooking parlance) off the bottom of the pan, which will enrich your dish to restaurant-worthiness. Return the cooked stuff to the pan and carry on.

Salt is also your friend

There, I said it: Salt is not the enemy. People who consume too much sodium usually do it in the form of processed foods. The salt shaker in your kitchen is generally not the problem. Chefs know that salt means flavor, not saltiness. It makes whatever you’re cooking taste more like itself, just brighter. Try this: Make a bowl of plain oatmeal and split it in half. Stir a pinch of salt into one and leave the other alone, then taste. The one with salt won’t taste salty, just…oatier. Use too much and all you taste is the salt. Add a pinch to anything else that needs brightening (yes, even sweet things), and you’ll be amazed at the depth of flavor salt can bring.

Do you have any cooking questions I can answer in a future post? Please feel free to email me: