Chef's Blog

February 4, 2020

The Role of Acidity in Flavor

from Chef George Sideras

Have a soup that’s bland? A sauce that seems leaden, or a vegetable dish that needs a boost? Think acid.

Acidic ingredients play an important role in flavor, adding bright, fresh notes and enhancing other ingredients, in particular providing balance to both bitterness and sweetness In addition, acids contribute to leavening in baking, and to tenderization in a variety of foods, such as proteins.

Although sourness by itself is not necessarily a good thing (in fact, many spoiled foods taste sour), all great meals are about the balance between the five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.

If you taste a recipe and it just seems to be missing something, don’t automatically reach for the salt shaker. Consider one of the following sources of acidity instead to achieve that balancing act.

Vinegar

This common cooking acid may be the first thing that comes to mind, and deservedly so. In addition to providing a reliably pleasant source of tartness, vinegars are available in lots of different varieties, from delicate rice vinegar to powerful balsamic. Premium vinegars can add very specific flavors to food, as well as upscale cachet. Beyond ubiquitous red and white wine vinegar, there are a number of other flavorful vinegars based on wine.

  • Champagne vinegar, like white wine vinegar, is only slightly sour, making it a favorite for vinaigrettes and light-colored marinades
  • Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from grape must, aged in a series of small barrels; the best (and most expensive) can impart a honeyed flavor and almost syrupy texture that’s delicious when showcased, as in a drizzle used to finish grilled swordfish. However, even commercially made balsamic vinegars, which often have flavor and color added, bring an intriguing sweet-sour flavor to food
  • Sherry vinegar—the best is produced in the Spanish province of Cádiz—adds soft, round, almost savory notes to food, like pan sauces that need a bit of oomph

Among fruit vinegars, apple cider vinegar is the most well-known, but varieties such as raspberry, pear, fig, and passionfruit can be used to jazz up foods that could benefit from subtle sweet-sour flavors, like pork. Other possibilities include specialty vinegars like rice vinegar (both plain or seasoned), which is useful in Chinese and Japanese recipes; malt vinegar, indispensable for fish and chips; and various flavored balsamic vinegars, such as chocolate and serrano pepper honey.

Citrus Juice

Don’t just think lemon juice, although it is the tartest of the citrus juices. Lime juice is popular in Latin cuisine, while yuzu shows up in Japanese specialties. Grapefruit juice adds appetizing bitterness as well as acidity, while orange juice introduces sweetness. And unexpected or exotic varieties of citrus like Key lime, bergamot, and kumquat add uniqueness and a premium image. Like vinegars, citrus juices can also be used to help “sell” menu items through description, for example Tangerine Vinaigrette or Cilantro Lime Chicken.

Tomatoes

The perfect tomato displays balanced elements of tart acidity and sweetness that underscore how the fruit can be used in its many forms to brighten up the flavor of food. In addition to the tomato itself—whether cooked into a recipe or diced and used as a flavorful garnish—consider tomato juice, tomato paste, sundried tomatoes, ketchup, prepared tomato sauce, purée, and specialty products like tomato conserva. Soups and braised dishes can almost always benefit.

Cultured Dairy

Products like buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt can be used to add tang as well as richness to foods, in both savory and sweet applications like baking. Buttermilk and yogurt are good in marinades (think of buttermilk-brined fried chicken), and many chefs are using yogurt and similar cultured dairy products like labneh to create toppings and sauces for foods such as shakshuka that need a snappy contrast. Crème fraiche is more stable than heavy cream for whisking into hot foods, while also imparting a touch of subtle acidity. Cheeses like feta and goat cheese can be used for their tangy nature in salads, sandwiches, and stuffing for proteins. Whey left over from cheesemaking is relatively new on the culinary horizon, and it can be used for tang in everything from cocktails to dressings.

Fresh and Dried Fruit

It’s not just citrus that can be used to add acid balance to foods. Fruits (and their juice) including pomegranate, pineapple, blueberry, and cranberry have a tart flavor profile that works well with a variety of foods, especially proteins like lamb and pork, while dried berries such as currants and cranberries add texture as well as tang to salads and baked goods. Fruit salsas can be used as an accompaniment that balances the richness of a variety of foods, including grilled meats. Pomegranate molasses is a piquant Middle Eastern ingredient that is crossing boundaries, especially in vegetarian cooking.

Pickled and Fermented Foods

This broad category of ingredients is all about the tang. Chop up pickles of all kinds in sauces, marinades, spreads, ground meat and grain mixtures, and potato and pasta salads. Add the juice in sauces, stews, and even Bloody Mary mix. Tuck pickled alliums (such as onions and shallots) into sandwiches, and julienne pickled carrot and daikon into banh mi. Fermented ingredients like sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, and kefir are brilliant flavor balancers in both global and mainstream foods—try kombucha as a marinade for thin pork or chicken cutlets, and add kimchi to deviled eggs and cross-cultural fried rice. Be sure to call out these ingredients on menus; fermented foods confer health benefits due to their probiotic properties, which are very on-trend right now.

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