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This article is part of Change The Way You Cook, a new series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.
Too sweet is a compliment for a present but an insult for, say, a sundae. Imagine a couple scoops of caramel ice cream with butterscotch sauce, toffee crumbles, chantilly cream, and a maraschino cherry on top.
Too sweet! Cloying! Saccharine! To fix this, maybe we scoop salted caramel ice cream instead. Or replace the butterscotch with bittersweet hot fudge. The toffee crumbles with cayenne-spiced nuts. The chantilly with unsweetened whipped cream. The cherry with puckery blackberries.
Savory recipes often encourage us to “season to taste”—a sprinkle of salt, pinch of pepper, squeeze of lemon—for balance, but desserts rarely do the same. Which is a shame, because desserts want to be balanced, too.
To offset sweetness, just ask your tongue what else it wants: salty, bitter, sour, umami, even spicy. Of course, not every dessert needs to hit all these marks. But drawing from at least one will not only sidestep sugar overload—it’ll help you appreciate the sweetness all the more.
Here’s how to help any dessert become its very best self:
Break up with cinnamon
There are plenty of spices in the sea. If we can learn anything from popular baking spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice, it’s that spices make sweets feel warm and cozy. Let’s turn up the heat:
- Black pepper: floral and punchy, perfect for fruit. Add to macerating strawberries for shortcakes. Or any fruit pie, crisp, or cobbler.
- Cayenne: hot and bothered, gets along with chocolate. Add to puddings, cakes, cookies, ice cream.
- Chili flakes: pretty but proceed with caution. Add a pinch to fruit salads. Or sprinkle on top of chocolate bark.
Take a cue from salted caramel
Find someone who looks at you the way salt looks at sugar. Salted caramel was crowned trendy a decade ago but it’s timeless for good reason: The main ingredients adore—and empower—each other. You can dress up any dessert to be saltier and sassier in a few different ways. Consider chocolate chip cookies. You could:
- Increase the amount of salt called for by ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon at a time.
- Incorporate a salty ingredient, like roasted peanuts, crushed pretzels, or potato chips.
- Garnish with flaky salt just before baking.
Bring home the bacon
Umami is a fine line to tread with desserts. Some folks will wait in line for a maple bacon donut; others will run for their lives. A little savory subtlety goes a long way. Start small by giving unsalted butter or flavorless oil a much-needed break:
- Cultured—or brown—butter offers new depth to buttery recipes like shortbread or pound cake.
- Take it a step further with fruity olive oil for the moistest cake, the dreamiest gelato.
- Or, go all in with lard a la old-school pie pastry.
Brûlée, baby, brûlée
Long before charred and burnt were cool, there was brûlée—introduced to you, no doubt, by crème. A creamy, sweet custard sealed with a crispy, bitter lid, crème brûlée was at one point the darling of dessert menus. Luckily, you don’t need a restaurant-caliber blowtorch to pull off bittersweet:
- Use a broiler or grill instead. Just remember, we’re looking less for golden-brown, more for mahogany-charcoal. Beyond custard, try grilling sturdy fruits, like pineapple or peach, or thick slices of cake.
- Befriend bitter ingredients. Mix cacao nibs with chocolate chips. Blend cocoa powder into banana “ice cream.” Swap out natural peanut butter for tahini. Add coffee grinds to creaming butter and sugar for cookies. Or a spoonful of matcha into a vanilla milkshake.
Most people add powdered sugar to their whipped cream. Nancy Silverton adds crème fraîche. This brings a sour tang to wherever the dessert is headed—from cake slabs to pie wedges—making them livelier and brighter. Genius, right? Let’s steal that idea and run with it:
- Spike your whipped cream—or frostings—with sour cream, Greek yogurt, mascarpone, or labne.
- Flip the formula on its head. Slightly sweeten any of the above with a few pinches of powdered sugar. Dollop away—no whisking necessary.
- Add balsamic vinegar to butterscotch. Bourbon to crème anglaise. Red wine to hot fudge.
- Unsalted butter, for greasing
- 4 firm d'anjou pears (about 2 1/2 pounds), chopped into 1" chunks (about 5 1/2 cups)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Heavy cream, for serving
- 1 1/2 cups rolled oats, divided
- 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, very cold, cubed