The Missing Ingredient: Acid

Whether from lemons, vinegar or wine, the quality of sourness may be the missing ingredient that will catapult your meals to the next level.

  • Acidity could be the missing ingredient to add depth and flavor to your meals.
    Photo by Fotolia

“There’s just something missing.” Many of us have said this while cooking. If you’ve ever searched for an elusive ingredient to lend depth and flavor to a dish, there’s a good chance that missing ingredient was acid. Like salt and pepper, but much more often overlooked, some form of acid is usually necessary to season food well. Acidity is one of the five main taste sensations we will ever have the pleasure to experience, so it makes sense to carefully consider it in our cooking.

In Ruhlman’s Twenty, chef Michael Ruhlman’s book about cooking technique, he says it’s difficult to describe exactly what acid imparts to food, but it’s something like “brightness.” Whereas seasoning with salt helps make a food taste more like itself, seasoning with acid can amplify the flavors in a dish, add depth and help bring everything into balance.

Acid to the Rescue

We have many choices when it comes to adding acid to a dish. The list that follows is by no means comprehensive. All we are trying to do here is kickstart our cooking brains into thinking a little bit more about sourness as an important element in our cooking palette. Keep in mind that just as we don’t necessarily want to taste salt itself in our food, we usually don’t want to notice the acidic ingredient by itself either. Be cautious of that heavy hand.

Citrus: The easiest way to lend a sour note to any food is to squeeze a wedge of citrus over the finished dish. Lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit are known to be useful in taming the fishiness in many seafood dishes, but they also make a number of other foods sing. Just for starters, try citrus juices on grilled chicken and cooked vegetables; blended into homemade vinaigrette dressings; and stirred into mayonnaise and condiments.

Vinegar: Vinegar is a fundamental ingredient in many cooked sauces, but like citrus, it can also be used as a finishing flavor. Stir a dash of white wine vinegar into your next cream-based soup, or a dash of red wine vinegar into a vegetable purée, such as butternut squash soup. You might be surprised at the range of foods that are improved this way. Try it for yourself and soon you will likely find, as Pliny the Elder did in the first century, that “no other sauce serves so well to season food or to heighten a flavor.”

The quality of vinegar is more important than the type, Ruhlman says, so it’s better to spend money on an excellent bottle instead of on several fancy-flavored bottles. His favorite all-purpose seasoning vinegar is sherry vinegar, though he says red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar and cider vinegars are all useful. Hot sauce usually has a hefty dose of vinegar in it—a good choice if you want some heat with your acid.

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