closeup of a black chalkboard with the name of different tastes, such as sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness or umami, placed on a pile of some different products representative of this tastes

A guide to balancing sweet and savory

The science and art of flavor

Balancing flavor is both a scientific technique and an artistic endeavor, informed by professional training, intuitive understanding and practical experience. It is essential to harmonize the five fundamental tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savory) — with particular attention to the interplay of sweetness and saltiness. 

Food sweetened with sauce

How sweet it is

Sweetness, derived from sources such as sugar, honey, fruits and others, not only mitigates the intensity of salty, bitter and sour flavors but also tempers the spiciness of a dish, enhancing its overall palatability and complexity.

“Adding some sweetness to savory dishes always does better as opposed to just pure salt,” said Red Fish chef Melissa Coocran. “I’ve found that many sauces taste kind of flat until you add a splash of honey or syrup. Another way to sweeten your dishes is with vegetables and foods that already have some sweetness to them.”

Balancing a cookie with sweet and salty

Get salty 

Saltiness serves two vital functions in culinary flavoring. First, it counteracts bitterness, creating a more balanced taste profile. Second, it amplifies the other flavors within a dish, especially sweetness. This is exemplified in the beloved salted caramel, where the interplay of salt and sugar achieves a perfect flavor harmony. In savory contexts, such as tomato-based dishes, salt enhances the inherent flavor of the tomatoes, making them more vibrant and robust. However, its potential in sweet dishes is frequently underutilized.

“Salt is an underrated ingredient for sweets and desserts,” said Lesli Shelly from Odd Birds Cafe & Market. “I think of salt like vanilla extract. It is a flavor enhancer that brings balance and complexity to sweet dishes. The flavors just seem to pop more when you add a little salt. We top most of our treats with a little sea salt and even use it in our house-made jam. It’s a game changer.”

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