Cooking with Acidity

You may hear on cooking shows that a dish needs a little acidity, but unlike salty and spicy, acidity may not be the easiest things to understand. Not everything that’s acidic instantly reminds me of sour tastes. Mostly, because there’s the pH scale of a large variety of what counts as acidic foods, and ingredients, like feta and ketchup, can also add subtle acidity to your dishes. Once you train your brain to think of acid in the same way as your brain goes “this could use a little salt” you will be able to elevate your dishes. Plus it’s fun to think about some of the science behind cooking and better understand why things work the way they do.

Having a few different options of acidic foods to keep as backup when your dish is too fatty or sweet can turn any average dish into something noteworthy. Some examples of acidic ingredients in cooking include:

  • Citrus juices, but particularly sour juices, like lime and lemon, have strong acidity.
  • Other sour fruits, like plums, pineapples, guava, and grapes
  • Vinegar
  • Hot sauces
  • Some dairy, like buttermilk, feta cheese, sour cream and things similar
  • Mustard
  • Tomatoes, including ketchup, canned tomatoes, and fresh
  • Pickles
  • Kimchi, sauerkraut, and other pickled veggies
  • Olives and capers
  • Coffee
  • Beer
  • Sourdough
  • Tamarind

Some (Simple) Science about Acids in your Cooking

Cooking is all about science, whether that excites you or not. If it does, even a little, acidity is a great place to start. Knowing what foods will add acidity and how acid works in different environments is pretty fun to me. Here are some cool things about acids:

  • Remember when something says it has a low pH, it’s high in acidity. If you’re looking for the opposite, you’ll see phrases like basic, alkaline, or alkalinity. Ingredients that are basic include baking soda and most green vegetables. You will see alkaline foods discussed more in health foods, which would be a whole different post. This post is all about flavor and you don’t normally hear about alkalinity in flavor discussions.
  • Most recipes should ask you to cook your meats and veggies before putting them into an acidic sauce (like tomato sauce). The acidity of the sauce plus heat really slows down the cooking process and it’ll take way longer to cook something in it, versus sauteing or boiling.
  • BUT if you wait long enough, acidity can ‘cook’ some meats. Pair fish with lots of citrus juice and you’re set with a lovely ceviche.
  • Acids help tenderize tough meats. That’s why you’ll see marinades containing citrus juices, vinegar, and even Greek yogurt.
  • Acid changes the color of foods. You ever notice that nice sprig of dill you added to your pickles always looks old after the pickling process is done? Acid darkens green colors and turn some colors, like purple, extra vibrant. Think red cabbage sauerkraut.
  • Acid interferes with oxidation, i.e. exposure to oxygen. It’s the main reason you can coat a banana, avocado, or apple with some citrus juice and they won’t brown as quickly.
  • Acids are used a lot in baking. Cream of tartar helps stabilize egg whites for your meringues. Baking powder is made of a base, an acid, and something to keep the two separate until needed. Once combined with water, the base and acid mix, creating carbon dioxide that add bubbles to your dish. Those bubbles create a rise in muffins, pancakes, and cookies. Baking soda is basic and requires the addition of an acid to do its thing. So skim through a recipe that asks for baking soda to see if you can find the acidic ingredient. In baking, that would be things like buttermilk, brown sugar, honey and even cocoa powder.

Acid and Sweet

These two really balance each other out. It’s why lemonade and bread and butter pickles are so delicious. The great thing about this pairing is that it naturally happens in many sour fruits, and it’s probably while citrus is used in so many different recipes. Many times, savory dishes will have too much acidity and it’s hard to pinpoint how to fix it or even to think “this is too acidic.” The simplest example is tomato sauce/pasta sauce/marinara. If you’re making your own or even just using what came from a can or jar, there’s a good chance that it won’t taste perfect without a little sweetness. A sprinkle of sugar in most of these sauces will mellow out the sourness and bring out the rest of the flavors of the sauce. Here are some examples where acid and sweetness go perfectly together:

  • Honey mustard
  • Grapefruit with sugar on top
  • Ketchup (which usually has wayyy more sugar than you can imagine)
  • Sweet and sour cocktails, like a whiskey sour or a margarita
  • Shrubs, a really nice vinegar and fruit mixture, paired with soda water or in a cocktail. Here’s a recipe.
  • Cheeses and jams
  • Mole
  • Mango chutney

Acid with Fat

I really love fatty meats, but sometimes the fat overpowers the rest of the flavor. That’s where acidity can really help. Acid and fat are used throughout cooking all over the world. You probably crave this pairing without realizing it. Here are just a few dishes I could think of:

  • Fried fish and chips with malt vinegar
  • Fatty grilled red meat with aoili
  • Grilled fish or lamb with olives, feta cheese, yogurt
  • Bacon and bleu cheese
  • Avocado and lime
  • Sourdough bread and fatty deli meats

Acid as a Replacement for Salt

I grew up in the Midwest and it was really normal to see the adults in my life (and even today) dump salt on every savory dish once it was on their plate. I love salt just as much as anyone, but I’ve realized I can use acidity in replacement of or with salt to add the flavor my palate is craving without clogging my arteries. I was eating some kimchi the other day and looked at the nutritional value. For the brand I was eating (Sunja’s) for one ounce, it had 90 mg of sodium (4% of daily value). I always thought kimchi was a super salty item, but the acidity of it heightens the flavor of the saltiness without adding the sodium. Of course this is not always the case (things like pickles and hot sauces tend to be acidity and high in sodium), but it made me realize that I can lean on acidity ingredients first, then add salt if my dishes aren’t flavorful enough after that.

How to add acidity to your next meal

  • Do what many cultures do and have something acidic as a side. Pickled dishes, like kimchi, pickled radishes, or pickled red onions, can be served on the side and added to your main dish whenever you and your guest need a little pick-me-up. Think about thick yogurt dips and other condiments as well.
  • Before you add salt next time a dish is boring, consider adding acid first.
  • Have an acid that works well with the cuisines you cook at home. It can be as simple as some citrus juice and a couple different kinds of vinegar. But try to not just have one and change the flavor profile of a dish too much, like adding balsamic vinegar to an Asian dish.
  • Add a splash of coffee to your chili. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s why I think everyone likes my chili a little more.
  • Think about acid while you’re cooking, then think about it again to finish off the dish.

Do you like the taste of acidity? If you do, what’s your go-to in your kitchen? Anything I didn’t mention that you do that bumps up the flavor in your home-cooking?

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