Italian cooking is deceptively simple. Dishes like pasta and soup seem easy to prepare, but when you compare the meals you’ve tasted in Italy or in a fine Italian restaurant to the ones you make at home, it may seem like there is something missing. That’s likely due to the expert way that real Italian chefs balance their flavors. This makes their dishes sing where others might fall a bit flat.
The good news is that you can learn how to balance the flavors in your Italian cooking at home. It all comes down to five flavors, each of which you’ll want to balance within a single dish. We’ll explore all of them in this guide, providing helpful tips and tricks along the way.
Flavor #1: Salty
Salt helps to enhance the flavors in a dish. In Italian cuisine, or any other for that matter, a dish that’s lacking in salt will taste bland and boring. In addition to using regular table salt or kosher salt, there are some tasty Italian ingredients you can use in your home cooking to add saltiness along with other yummy tastes. For example, prosciutto and other cured meats can add a salty touch while also adding depth of flavor. Parmigiano Reggiano also has a saltiness to it, but it adds a bit of creaminess at the same time. Capers and olives provide an enhancing saltiness as well.
Tip: If you add a bit too much salt, you can often counteract it with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
Flavor #2: Sweet
Sweetness is the natural balance to salt. It’s why many chefs add a bit of sugar to their tomato-based pasta sauces. Balsamic vinegar and fennel both have a sweetness that’s light instead of sugary, which works well for savory meals.
Tip: To balance out excess sugar, try adding a touch of lemon juice or vinegar (not the balsamic variety) to your dish.
Flavor #3: Bitter
Bitterness usually doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s actually one of the most important flavors in Italian cuisine. Extra virgin olive oil often features bitter notes, and you’ll find bitter tastes in Tuscan kale, endive, radicchio, and arugula. Italians also love a bitter and sweet liqueur called amaro which is to be enjoyed after meals to help with digestion.
Tip: Salt can help balance out bitterness. If a dish tastes too sweet, add more bitter ingredients.
Flavor #4: Sour
Like bitter, sour can be a surprisingly good thing in your cooking. It’s one of the best ways to brighten up a dish with fresh, zingy flavor. Lemon and vinegar are two examples of tart flavors often featured in Italian cooking.
Tip: Bring in more sweetness or salt if you find that a dish is getting too tart.
Flavor #5: Umami
Umami is a hearty, meaty flavor that makes a dish taste savory and satisfying. It’s similar to saltiness, but it has a deeper flavor that is a little richer. Beef and pork are both used prominently in some types of Italian cooking and add lots of umami. But you can also get this flavor from other common Italian ingredients, including mushrooms, Parmigiano Reggiano, and tomato sauce.
Tip: Any of the other flavors can be used to counteract excessive umami.