Thursday, October 18, 2012

10 Tips on How to Tweak a Recipe

Shrimp and Tomatoes in Skillet with Salt and Pepper on top
Most Recent Lesson (#6): Don't Add Salt
To Only a Few Ingredients

Derived by Robin via Trial & Error

Ever made a recipe that seemed so right but went so wrong? Even when you followed the directions to the letter? Let’s face it, some recipes are just not that well written. They leave too much to the imagination. Or sometimes the recipe writer’s taste just isn’t the same as ours, even if s/he is featured on The Food Channel or has written a classic cookbook. Can this recipe be saved, and if so, how? Take heart. As well known coach and writer Dianne Jacob discloses in her book Will Write for Food, recipe development is an art, an exercise in non-linear thinking. Here are a few tips for reinventing an almost-good recipe—as a masterpiece.

Handwritten book of recipe tweaking
Creative (Recipe) Process: Not Always Pretty
1. Problem: What did I do that worked? It’s impossible to remember everything that you’ve changed in any particular recipe without taking some notes, at least without effort bordering on superhuman. Keep a notebook just for that purpose. Write out the recipe and add the changes that you’ve made. Jot down ideas for next time based upon the criteria/problems below, or your own creative ideas. Repeat as necessary each time you make the dish until it’s perfect for you.

2. Problem: Flavor Imbalance. Local culinary wizard Jozseph Schultz (of India Joze fame) teaches that all food flavor is a combination of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, oily and hot (picante).  All of these elements must be present in balance, even if one or two are most prominent. If the recipe seems dominated by one element in excess, try reducing that element and/or adding more of other element/s. Change the amounts of each element a little at a time. Note that many condiments and seasonings are combinations of these elements. Here are some ingredient examples for each element:

  • Salty: salt, bouillon, Spike, Bragg’s liquid aminos
  • Sweet: sugar, honey, agave, jelly, fruit juice
  • Sour: white vinegar, white or red wine vinegar, yogurt
  • Bitter: black pepper, turmeric, paprika
  • Oily: olive oil, walnut and other oils, unsalted butter
  • Picante: red pepper, salsa, hot sauce

3. Problem: Too spicy. Either it’s too much of one herb or spice, too much of all the seasonings, or the spicing is unfamiliar (in a bad way), or you don’t like a particular seasoning in the context it’s used. You could:

  • Remove or reduce the seasoning that you don’t like (if you can identify it).
  • Remove or reduce any strong herb, spice, or condiment, for example olive paste, chili pepper, cloves, garlic, tarragon, or thyme.
  • Cut down on the total amount of every herb and spice.
  • Cut down on the total number of herbs and spices used.

4. Problem: Not enough spice. The dish is bland and you’d like it more vibrant. You could:

  • Increase the amount of all herbs and spices in recipe proportionately.
  • Increase one or more herb or spice that you know you like.
  • Add a different seasoning that’s compatible. A list of which herbs and spices are compatible is available at Passionate Homemaking.

5. Problem: Seasoning tastes strange with main ingredients.  This is really a combination of #2 (flavor imbalance) and #4 (too much spice). Try tips from these two items above, singly or in combination, or:

  • Reduce or eliminate the herbs and spices and use a seasoning combination that you know you like with the other ingredients in the recipe.
  • Try a different seasoning blend based upon a list of known compatible herbs. Two lists of seasonings compatible with various foods are available at Local Foods and the Hub Pages.

6. Problem: Tastes too salty. I separated this from other seasoning problems because salt is so concentrated, so simple, and so ubiquitous, and several things can go wrong. Consider these scenarios:

  • Too much or too little salt: Readjust the amount down by 50%, or up by 1/8 tsp. increments. If the amount of salt in a recipe doesn’t sound right, trust your intuition and change accordingly, especially if it sounds like too much. You can always add more at the end.
  • Some ingredients taste salty and the rest of the dish is bland: Salt was added at the wrong time or without enough accompanying ingredients, particularly liquids, resulting in salting of some ingredients and not others. Try adding salt later in the recipe, after more ingredients have been added. Or dissolve salt in a liquid ingredient so it permeates all parts of the dish.
  • Saltiness is strong but bland at the same time: Try substituting a seasoned salt like Spike or Spike salt-free blend, or a touch of Bragg’s liquid aminos to add complexity to the salt element. If water is an ingredient, you could substitute bouillon and eliminate the salt.
  • Overall blandness: According to King Arthur Flour’s traveling baking demo, a little salt brings out other flavors in baked goods, so don’t eliminate it completely. Keep this principle in mind when preparing sweet or sour vegetable, meat, and grain dishes.

7. Problem: Tastes overcooked. Whether baked or cooked on the stove, it’s overdone and might taste soggy or burnt. If made in the oven, it’s probably dried out. Next time you’d want to try:

  • For oven-prepped foods: Cut back on baking time, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees (F), and/or cover the baking dish for all or part of the baking.
  • For overly-simmered stovetop dishes: Cut back on the amount of simmer-time. If extra cooking time was needed to reduce the liquid, add less liquid ingredient next time, reducing it by ¼ - ½ cup and checking periodically to see if more liquid is needed during cooking.

8. Problem: Tastes undercooked. Veggies or grains are too raw and crunchy, and/or flavors haven’t blended well. Here’s what you might do:

  • You can always increase the cooking time. You might need to add more liquid if it’s dry, particularly for grain-based dishes.
  • You might also want to experiment, gradually and with care, with increasing the cooking temperature slightly, as your stove might vary from the recipe writer’s. Try using an oven thermometer to test whether your oven temperature is accurate (see item #9).

9. Problem: Unevenly cooked, both over- and undercooked. It’s undercooked in the center and overcooked on the edges. You would want to:

  • Reduce the temperature at which it is cooked next time.
  • Take into account that your oven might run hot, and you’re not baking at the specified temperature. This could be just your oven’s idiosyncracy, or your thermostat might need adjustment. In either case, an inexpensive oven thermometer is a good diagnostic tool.

10. Problem: Texture isn’t right. My husband came up with this one. He has more defined limits of pleasing food textures than I do. Various textural issues can occur. Not all textural problems can be solved the first time around, so you might need to try the dish again to see best results. Here are some scenarios:

  • Dish is too wet: Use less liquid next time, or cook it more if mushiness (see below) isn’t an issue. You could also resort to draining the dish or ladling off the excess liquid, especially if you have guests. You’ll improve both texture and visual appeal.
  • Dish is too dry: Add more liquid, starting with ¼ cup or ½ cup if (for example) rice is still crunchy or pasta underdone. Make a note on your recipe about added liquid for next time. Broth, tomato sauce or juice, apple or orange juice, milk, and water are liquids to consider.
  • Dish is too mushy: It’s either overcooked or didn’t contain enough crunchy ingredients to begin with. You can try cooking it less next time, or add more vegetables, being careful not to overcook them. Nuts, seeds, or finely chopped apples, carrots and/or celery can add some texture to save the dish this time.
  • Dish is too bumpy or texture is otherwise unpalatable: Enjoyment of flavors and textures is truly an individual matter, and you simply might not like the texture of a given dish. You could try adding crunchy (chopped veggies, nuts, or seeds), chewy (raisins), or smooth (liquefy part with an immersion blender) textures, but this experiment might not result in a dish that you like. Try the recipe once more if you like, or just give yourself permission to move on to the next culinary venture.

Recipe Fail from Past Blog Experiment
Some Recipes Will Never Be Right
Please post a comment if you have other recipe-saving ideas. As you work with recipes in an analytical way you’ll gain a better understanding of what you like and how a new recipe will work for you before you even try it. Most times, if the ingredients seem odd and like they wouldn’t play well together for you and your family, they won’t. Trust your instincts.


  1. My friend Rox (a creative & discerning chef)added the following comment on "Not Enough Spice" on Seasonal Eating's Facebook page. Excellent points & I'm especially fond of last sentence. ~Robin

    This was a great list; I wish I'd had it when I'd first gone off to college! My two addendums to your #4 would be:

    a) Temperature matters. The tongue has a harder time picking up flavors/spices when something is served cold/frozen. If your cold/frozen dish seems a bit bland, up the flavor/spice quotient until you're happy with the results.

    b) It might be a matter of time. You know how some dishes just taste, well, better the next day? Sometimes the lack of flavor is because you put the spices in at the end of the preparation/cooking and the flavors haven't had time to "marry" yet. Consider adding spices and flavorings in a little sooner to give them time to develop. "Patience" is a one of the best tools in a cook's toolkit!

  2. I like the picture above. Shrimp cocktails sauteed in basil tomatoes? (Need confirmation). It reminds me of the Spanish recipe called "Gambas" which the main ingredient is chili powder alongside olive oil.

  3. Hi Ginger, the photo is the first part of the recipe "Shrimp Stir Fry with Zucchini & Tomatoes," at (before zucchini is added, when I made mistake of adding salt to shrimp). Gambas sounds fabulous & I'd love to make some next tomato season! Thanks for the tip!

  4. Hi again, Ginger...a quick web search tells me that Gambas does not need tomatoes so I'll try to make up a recipe for it next month. My Cuban friend turned me on to, which is a great source for Spanish paprika...which seems to be another main ingredient.

  5. I always love seafoods ever since, that's why I'm fascinated with recipes using shrimps or clams or squids as a main ingredient. I remember eating a delicious dish of shrimp on a catering service I attended in Suffolk. I don't know but it's just so yummy!

    1. Hi Laura,
      Here is a link to the recipe when I did get it to work. And good idea, I need to make more recipes with shellfish!

  6. Yeah, I agree some recipes will never be right for the food. That’s why we tried our best meeting the caterers to avoid mistakes and recipes fail in our wedding.

    1. Good idea, Amelia, and good luck planning all the details. Guests will appreciate your efforts. We misplaced our wedding vow document (so had to fake it at the ceremony), and a musician didn't show up...but at least the food was good. And that's what guests commented on afterwards, not the other stuff.

  7. Since we’re in charge of the food for our corporate party this saturday, I'll definitely print a copy of these tips so that my teammates will also have an idea on how to avoid recipe fails during the party.

    1. Glad that this will help, Tia, and best wishes for a successful party. It's great that you can celebrate a bit during this cold time of year.

  8. Just remember to keep cooking healthy dishes. Keep low on the addition of salt and other flavor enhancing powder cause it will surely affect your kidneys in the long run. There are healthier alternatives that you can add to enhance the flavor of your dishes.

  9. A good chef is measured on their improvisation. The ability to adapt is a rare trait among them. Sharing this kinds of tips will benefit all of us.

  10. Practice, practice and more practice. Just like any other challenging activity, cooking is about trial and error. Great chefs invest so much time in the kitchen and the result of their hard work are great tasting dishes.

  11. Thanks for summarizing these. Before I entered catering services, I've been having the same problems, but mostly number 6. This will be a reminder for me and my team whenever we need to troubleshoot the recipe. I'll print this out for them.

    1. Hayley, I'm happy that this checklist is useful...especially to a food prep professional! Thanks so much for commenting, much appreciated.

  12. I've been attempting to tweak some Korean dishes to make it adjust to my very weak tolerance for spice. So far, I've been nailing it thanks to your tips!

    1. Glad that this is working for you, Carline. Feel free to share any links to Korean dishes that you like on Seasonal Eating!

  13. Yes, I can definitely relate to this one, some recipes that I make seem perfect but when you taste it you know that there’s something missing. I even bought new kitchen utensils, hoping that it would help in the success of the food, well in the brighter side, good thing I’ve read these tips, it’s a perfect timing indeed, I hope that this time I can create my own recipe.