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Since You Asked: Learn to make a recipe your own

I love trying new recipes and usually follow them to the letter, at least the first time around. But sometimes, the flavors come out kind of flat. I'm left wondering if there's something wrong with my ingredients, or if it's just the peculiarities of my palate — or someone else's. I'd like to salvage the dish somehow but worry I might ruin the whole thing. What do you suggest?

— Judy C., via email

We feel your pain: All that work for a lackluster result. But part of learning to cook is developing the confidence to make a recipe your own because how it tastes to you is what really matters. Balance should be the goal.

Salt often is the cook's de facto seasoning, but resist sodium's siren call in favor of something else that brightens a dish. A splash of acid in the form of vinegars or citrus juices is a good place to start.

On the front end, use spices and herbs to their full advantage. Toasting spices first in a dry pan really releases their flavors. Similarly, just garnishing with a few leaves of fresh herbs doesn't go as far as chopping them and incorporating in the dish.

If the dish needs heat from hot sauce or chillies, counterbalance that with a little sweetness from sugar, honey or agave syrup. Underlying sweetness — and bitterness — keeps savory foods from being one-note. Think beer and brown sugar in chili.

Sometimes food needs more texture. A sprinkling of nuts or seeds also adds savoriness. Specialty salts for finishing, such as Maldon, fleur de sel or smoked versions, impart a texture along with subtler flavors.

And if salt still is lacking, consider other salty ingredients that also incorporate more dimension: Parmesan cheese, capers or fish sauce, for example.