Often times the dishes I am the most disappointed with end up being a hit with my family. It is almost as if our tastes contrast each other.

Given that, how can I cook something that appeases a palate which is not my own, and especially one that appreciates flavors and textures I do not like? A major part of cooking is adjusting things along the way according to a preference, and it is hard when whatever preference you are working with (your own) is not relevant (when cooking for others).

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    Bland seems to be a hit with most people. Witness the popularity of the super soft white corn tortilla, plain white rice, and mashed potatoes. That said, you can do a lot with a bit of salt, pepper and maybe a hint of marjoram. Keep it simple, and non-challenging to the palate. Feb 22, 2016 at 19:57
  • @wayfaringstranger you sound awfully judgmental. Are you a fellow spice junkie who like me must have a kick in every dish?
    – Bar Akiva
    Feb 22, 2016 at 20:33
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    related : cooking.stackexchange.com/q/30398/67
    – Joe
    Feb 22, 2016 at 20:57
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    I misread your question and thought you were asking how to cook Pilates.. Needless to say, I was a little confused.
    – Kevin
    Feb 22, 2016 at 22:16
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    @WayfaringStranger: Nobody who's grown up eating plain white rice eat plain white rice on its own. There's a reason asian dishes (be it Indian, Chinese, Thai, Malay etc.) tend to be slightly over-seasoned and have very strong taste: we eat them with plain white rice!
    – slebetman
    Feb 23, 2016 at 9:07

4 Answers 4


I have (nearly) no sense of taste and smell, and what sense I do have is heavily distorted. As a result, my senses are non-indicative of dish quality. Nearly every meal I cook is shared with at least one person, though, so I've had to adapt.

I iterate over the same recipe over and over varying the spice mixtures and ratios, and ask for comment every time. I write down said comments with the recipe, and then adjust from there. Usually my recipes stop evolving by the time I've written iteration #4-5 (less for newer recipes, as I can now "play" the flavors by ear).

When I'm cooking for people I don't see often, I use my well-rehearsed recipes. I also select foods where the cooking is more of a science, where it's hard to mess up the flavor, or where people take a self-seasoning approach (e.g. baking bread, grilling steak, baking potatoes).

Edit: Here's some simple spice trends from my personal recipes. These have been calibrated almost exclusively on Southern U.S. guests:

  • Mild Spanish Paprika (Pimentón) is great for grilling and pan-frying pork (along with the usual suspects like salt and pepper).
  • Add 1/person dried bay leaves (whole ones, not chopped or ground) and 1/person garlic cloves to your rice when cooking it. Remove them after cooking. Do the same for stews, and really anything that cooks in water (other than pasta and potatoes).
  • Add some granulated garlic (which is basically powdered garlic without the dust issues) to nearly everything. It's quick, mess-free, and I think most people (at least near me) harbor a terrible addiction for garlic. Use actual garlic when doing stews, sauces, or you just have the extra time to peel it.
  • Substitute bacon fat for butter when cooking things other than bread and pork. Only thing people are more addicted to than garlic would be bacon. Use both garlic and bacon fat when making mashed potatoes, watch them cry happy tears while they ask for additional helpings.
  • Instead of plain vegetable/frying oil, get a bottle of non-virgin olive oil and a bottle of peanut oil. After cooking with them a few times you'll get a feel for which is right for each dish (rule of thumb: higher temperatures means peanut).
  • I have yet to find a dish that wasn't improved by sprinkling some parsley on top at the very end. It adds color (specially to anything that doesn't have green otherwise), and everyone either loves it or is neutral to it.
  • Too exhaustive for my taste, but have my upvote for the idea.
    – Bar Akiva
    Feb 22, 2016 at 20:34
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    @BarAkiva Thanks :) I added some more information to the answer (see the Edit) with some "generally useful" trends from my everyday recipes. Hopefully at least one of these helps.
    – mech
    Feb 22, 2016 at 20:53
  • It's not the best answer for this specific question, but on it's own it is really great ill upvote your comment, and ill make sure to whisper "mech" in a tender voice everytime I add granulated garlic to my dishes!
    – Bar Akiva
    Feb 22, 2016 at 21:14
  • Bahahahaha, I'm honored! Yeah, I understand it doesn't fit what you're asking perfectly, but I hope between my answer and (hopefully) everyone else's we can get you where you need to be :P
    – mech
    Feb 22, 2016 at 21:15

It sounds as if you may be more sensitive to flavors, and thus don't like it too overpowering. (people on the other side of the spectrum would claim the food to be bland).

The easiest thing to do is to keep a few seasonings, sauces, and spice blends that people can add to adjust the flavoring to their taste. When I cook for a dozen or more people, I'll either make the food bland (or if preparing more than one dish, at least one of the items is less spiced), and let people adjust the flavorings to their taste.

You'll often see such things in various quick-service restaurants ... the exact list depends on the type of restaurant (diner, burger, italian, mexican, etc.)

  • salt
  • pepper
  • mustard
  • ketchup
  • hot sauce (possibly a variety)
  • barbeque sauce
  • steak sauce
  • horseradish sauce
  • salsa
  • crushed red pepper
  • grated hard cheeses
  • granulated garlic
  • a blend of herbs & spices (italian, za'atar, Old Bay, etc)
  • Being more sensitive to flavors... Never thought of it like that. Do you find this method to not take too much in terms of flavor from the end product? I know some seasoning is best added in certain parts of the cooking process because the flavors are infused to the dish better that way.
    – Bar Akiva
    Feb 22, 2016 at 22:57
  • @BarAkiva : you still need to add some salt and seasoning; cut back by 1/4 to 1/2 ... even more the really strong stuff (hot chilies, black pepper, citrus juice, garlic) or more objectionable flavorings (cloves, fennel/anise/caraway, cilantro, etc.) Some people are really sensitive to chilies. I've had people complain a batch of red beans & rice was too hot (using Alton Brown's recipe, but leaving out the hot sauce & cayenne ... only heat was from pickled pork (made normally) and some black pepper)
    – Joe
    Feb 23, 2016 at 0:53
  • @BarAkiva : I should also mention that I'll bring appropriate seasoning for the dish for people to add to get back to their preference. Eg, for chili I'll have chili powder, hot sauce(s), and various powdered chilies (jalapeno, hot paprika, cayenne, chipotle). For Mexican food, hot sauce(s) and adobo sin pimenton. For Italian food, italian herb blend, garlic powder, crushed red pepper, hard grated cheese. Some of the no-salt herb blends (eg, Mrs. Dash) are also useful for people trying to watch their salt intake.
    – Joe
    Feb 23, 2016 at 1:09

In my wife's case, it is a combination of general talant along with deliberate education and feedback.

Everyone loves her Chinese cooking. But I note that it's actually Chinese/American (not ethnic Cantonese or full-bore Sichuan) and furthermore is customized to my family's tastes.

Two anecdotes on deliberate learning: first, I found initally that the use of ginger was overpowering in most meat stir-fry. I noticed the pattern and discussed it with her, figuring it was a difference in taste calibration. She changed that, and ended up finding a sauce that I like very much.

Second, she wondered how to make something that would go good with family dinner. I suggested using seasoning that matched what I knew the entree would be using (e.g. Majoram). More generally, what would my parents like? Learning Mom's recipies let her know the general palette of flavors.

Now I see that it requires talent as well. How does she know when a recipe is "right" for someone else? It helps to have a hugely broad and varied palette of taste herself. It is good to be able to taste nuances of not-so-spicey food as well as being able to appreciate very spicey things (at a restaurant recently, 10 wasn't high enough and she had the chef go up to 12 instead!).

Given a particular combination of seasonings (and avoiding others) she's learned what it should form as proper chords of flavor, so can come up with something new that still fits.

Without being directly able to work within someone else's flavor box, I think a few things can still go a long way: know the individual basic flavors of that cuisine (e.g. how much majoram is used in Polish sausage), so seasoning "something" can simply use a standard amount of the chosen spice. Avoid particular flavors that are not liked or are hard to use well or are sensed differently (e.g. if a dish doesn't have broccoli in it, you don't have to worry about the sulpher overpowering or changing the underlying notes compared to someone who tastes it as sweet instead).

If you can't make novel works in someone else's "box", then stick with already calibrated and vetted combinations.

Finally, get feedback at critical points. I grew up on very low salt, for example, and she'll ask me to taste when adding salt if she thinks it's the right measurement but still seems unsalted to her.


Let's not get too complicated here. If you want to cook for others, this is about knowing your audience, not your own preferences. Knowledge of a wide array of ingredients and flavors is necessary for you to do this. Unless you are cooking for yourself, your own flavor preferences matter little.

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