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Acidity


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I've been thinking about acidity lately, and about how so many cooks -- both professional and non-professional -- fail to consider acidity when cooking. If you flip through standard cookbooks, you see very few acid components in the recipes. Yet acidity is a key component of many dishes, if you want them to taste their best.

In many cases, acidity can be the difference between a good dish and a great one. The other day, for example, I made some lentils to accompany braised short ribs. The lentils were good, don't get me wrong. They were cooked with the strained, defatted braising liquid from the short ribs, and they had some of the short-rib meat diced up and mixed in with the lentils. But my friend, after tasting from the pot, noted, "It could use a little acidity." A splash of vinegar and it was a substantially better dish.

So, I was hoping we could start a discussion of acidity.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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I have always called it the "High note" in a dish. Especially heavy or pureed soups. A little lemon, lime, vinegar, or Hot sauce can perk things up without added salt or fat

...All the Hispanic girls I work with bring a lime when they have soup for lunch

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Often, the problem with acidity is that we do not have a wide choice of ingredients at hand to adjust a dish.

Vinegar and citrus fruits comes to mind easily

Than what do we have:

- some other fruits like cranberries and granny smith apples

- some herbs and vegetables such as sorrel

- rhubarb

What else?

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I agree wholeheartedly. Last job I was at had 3 or so soups on the menu at any time, and when I started their, they didn't have any acidity in their soups! When I started to prep things after just starting, they pretty much left me alone, so I made the soups the way I always do. As example, I always use cider vinegar in my butternut squash soups, and they happened to have a simple one on their menu. After I made it, the head chef tried it and wondered why it was so good. This wasn't the only job where acidity isn't really touched on, is it really that forgotten to put acid in a dish these days?

I've always been under the impressing that a good level of acidity is needed, it's that certain layer of flavor you just can't get another way.

Edited by MattyC (log)

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I short while ago, I was investigating Thai food and the idea of balancing tastes (which is present to all cuisines in degrees, but is especially prominent in Thai).

Then I made nachos.

And I thought "lime juice?"

I think the overall change was more clarity to all flavours, not simply just the addition to a high note.

The attributes I've seen given to acidity have been i. cut through fat, ii. addition of high note, and more recently (I think it's French Laundry Cookbook) iii. bringing out flavours, reducing the amount of salt required.

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I think acidity is vastly under rated by a lot of home cooks.

I am a fan of the Thai 5 flavor balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, hot. In European dishes the acidity component often comes into play as the factor that takes things into the end zone. I consider prepared mustards as an acid add-in.

Growing up with a Austrian-Hungarian style of cooking we actually passed the plain Jane white vinegar bottle around the table to add to certain soups, mostly the vegetable.

When something tastes flat, acidity is so often the easy fixer given that salt has been adjusted.

My current arsenal includes lots of different citrus, tamarind, various vinegars and I am adding items like pomegranate and cranberry.

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. . . .

When something tastes flat, acidity is so often the easy fixer given that salt has been adjusted.

. . . .

Maybe I'll try adding citric acid to a bowl of soup one day soon.

I think we often add salt, when what's really needed is acid. It's a road from which there is no return.

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And I thought "lime juice?"

I think the overall change was more clarity to all flavours, not simply just the addition to a high note.

The attributes I've seen given to acidity have been i. cut through fat, ii. addition of high note, and more recently (I think it's French Laundry Cookbook) iii. bringing out flavours, reducing the amount of salt required.

Yeah, that's my impression too. Acidity seems similar to salt in that it does two things that may be related but are different: it balances flavors, and it also brings out other flavors.

In this second sense, it's often conspicuous by its absence. Something might taste flat or off or dimensionless, but it won't cry out to be more tart. Unless you've trained yourself to recognize the problem, you won't necessarily know it needs acid ... just that you want it to taste more like itself, or more alive.

Notes from the underbelly

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Often, the problem with acidity is that we do not have a wide choice of ingredients at hand to adjust a dish.

Vinegar and citrus fruits comes to mind easily

Than what do we have:

- some other fruits like cranberries and granny smith apples

- some herbs and vegetables such as sorrel

- rhubarb

What else?

in addition to these & subsequent items mentioned, over the dairy department you have yoghurt & sourcream to add a nice acid component to a dish. Green gooseberries can add sour as well.

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Once we've passed the question of whether to add acid to provide balance (yes!!!), we need to consider the type of acid.

I always try to use an acid that is common in the culture from which a dish arises (eg. I'd typically use lime in Thai food rather than vinegar and rice vinegar in other Asian food rather than a European style vinegar).

The next consideration is the type of flavor that you want to add. Acids come in many forms, not all of which will blend with all ingredients. Thus, it is good to have a range: lemon juice, lime juice, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, tamarind, sherry vinegar, verjuice, yoghurt, sour cream and so on). I have all of them in easy reach when cooking and will grab the one that will add the best flavour and that matches the style of cooking.

I cooked a Chili the other day that was complex in flavour but flat in my middle palate; some lime juice sorted this out very quickly, which makes sense in terms of its role in Mexican cooking.

I'd also endorse looking at the Thai approach to flavour as a model. Sweet, salty, hot, and sour makes for a good starting point when you are tasting and adjusting your seasonings in cooking.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

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Coming from a winemaking background, as I do, it might be worth noting that acids can be fixed or volatile. Volatile acids (like vinegar) will give that "high note" that rooftop talks about that will lift the aromas. I often add a few drops of vinegar to sauces at the end of cooking to achieve this.

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I would be lost with out the acidic component in most of my cooking and eating! Be it adding to the dish while cooking or at the table while eating

tang does bring other flavors to light that is for sure

one of my favorites is tamarind for adding tartness and I use it in many dishes ...it is so fruity and tart ..in curries, chiles, meats, salsa... even have slipped it into spaghetti and bbq sauce with great results ..

also I have a line of vinegars on my counter from mild to very intense

I love using sour salt as well just a dash here and there can perk up a lot of dishes with out screaming at you!

lately I have been using a lot of coconut vinegar, the one that is just fermented coconut water (some have other things added that ruin it)

what a perfect tang it has!

usually when I am wondering "what does this need to finish it" it is usually the acidic flavor ..and a squeeze, splash or dash ..and it is done

Edited by hummingbirdkiss (log)
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I always have lemon juice, limes and at least four types of vinegar on hand to add that "just right" to dishes.

I also love adding hot suace to dishes, especially if they have a strong vinegar flavor.

I have often found that salt will just make a dish saltier. But an acid will highlight, underscore and meld.

Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you and be silent. Epicetus

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One thing I always have on my station at work is several squeeze bottles of vinegar to adjust flavor on the fly.

In high end kitchens acid is very much talked about and considered when cooking.

My personal favorite is sherry vinegar, but banyuls is right up there. Things like verjus are great sometimes as well.

Sometimes it just takes a few drops to "brighten" the flavors of the dish. It can be something that you don't taste but if it wasn't there the dish wouldn't be as good, and sometimes you want to taste it strongly (like in a vinaigrette for example).

I would say along with the use of butter and stock, the use of acid is one reason big reason why restaurant food tastes so much better than home cooked food (as a general rule).

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Coming from a winemaking background, as I do, it might be worth noting that acids can be fixed or volatile.  Volatile acids (like vinegar) will give that "high note" that rooftop talks about that will lift the aromas.  I often add a few drops of vinegar to sauces at the end of cooking to achieve this.

Can you elaborate on the distinction?

Notes from the underbelly

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this post ahead of mine reminds me when I am adding acid I tend to always add it at the end ..to finish a dish or as a condiment on the table ...unless it is something like Adobo or other where you are using more of it and really want the vinegar to cook into the other flavors

why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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I think we often add salt, when what's really needed is acid. It's a road from which there is no return

More basic than that, I think-the remedy to an excessively salty dish is acid, and vice versa.

What's not addressed here is the wine that we drink with the food, and very often it's the wine that should supply most of the acidity.

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I have citric acid in my cupboard, but I use it rarely. Usually I want the flavor that various acids provide, but if I'm out of the appropriate natural acid (lemons, limes, the right vinegar) citric acid steps in as a great pinch hitter.

Has anyone mentioned tomatoes? Or bell peppers?

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I just joined the EG Forums and I read this thread first. It actually answered a question I had just last week.

As a simple lunch I made myself a clear vegetable soup with bacon about two weeks back (important to use hand made smoked bacon) and I used a glass of white wine that I reduced with the vegetables. The soup was amazing, and I wasn't sure why it was so good. It's a simple soup that is always good, but why so much better than normal?

I remade it the next day and it was amazing again, so apparently I was doing something right.

Then two days later a friend asked for it as I had been telling him how good it suddenly was, and I made it again, but it wasn't as good.

It took me until this thread to realize why. The only difference between the first two and the last was the type of white wine. I used a very good dry riesling (Leitz, Germany) the first two times and an auxerrois (Bernard-Massard, Luxembourg) the last time. While they are all dry and excellent wines it was the beautiful lemonlike acidity of the riesling that made all the difference.

This, by the way, made me change the name of the soup to Riesling Soup as I will never again make it with anything else.

Thank you, guys!

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Last night we were eating lentil soup and, given my heightened awareness of acidity these days, I put three vinegars out on the table. Our three-year-old son started asking questions so I let him taste all three straight. He then asked if we had any more vinegars, so I pulled a few more out of the cabinet. At some point, I thought it might be an interesting exercise for me to taste them as well. The six I tried in series were:

- Red wine vinegar

- Upper-middle-tier balsamic-style vinegar

- Japanese seasoned rice vinegar (aka sushi vinegar)

- Apple cider vinegar

- Chinese black vinegar

- Lower-tier balsamic-style vinegar

gallery_1_295_21135.jpg

I regret not adding Sherry vinegar, real balsamico or plain white vinegar to the tasting. I'm out of Sherry vinegar and didn't think to go into the other cabinet where I now also see some Riesling vinegar. But anyway, what I learned is that, from an acidity standpoint, the red-wine vinegar tasted the most acidic, followed closely by the apple-cider vinegar. That was my perception at least. The two balsamics were much less acidic, with the cheaper one tasting far more acidic than the fancier one. The Chinese vinegar seemed about on par with the cheap balsamic. The Japanese vinegar, because it's intended for sushi rice, probably shouldn't have been in the tasting at all and, taken straight, was difficult to evaluate on account of all the seasoning.

Trying them in soup, what seemed to work best in terms of bringing flavor out was a little red-wine vinegar plus a little cheap balsamic. One contributed mostly acidity, the other that musty sweetness.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I agree that adding citrus or vinegar to many dishes brightens them. Chicken soup gets a great boost from a little lemon or lime juice, lentils love a finish of red vinegar, pinto beans over rice get a squirt of lime juice. Pho without a drizzle of lime is sad!

But no one has mentioned acidic components that aren't so obvious. As someone who has often had to cook low-acid meals for a family member, let me tell you: acidic elements are in about 90% of the foods we eat. The big one no one has yet mentioned is the tomato. Tomato is one of the foods highest in acid, and it's in a great percentage of soups and stews we all make. If you have ever tried to cook without tomato you will quickly realize how much even a modest amount of it add to the piquancy of many soups. And then there's lowly mayo. It adds a layer of acid to any sandwich.

Even a main dish that doesn't include tomato, vinegar or citrus is usually balanced in the meal by a salad, slaw, or veg that's got plenty of kick from acidic ingredients, so when you eat them together they enhance each other. Remember the cake vs pie thread? Pie had more votes and I suspect that's because many pies have major amounts of acidic fruit to balance out the sweetness. One way to get around that overwhelming sweetness of a non-acid dessert like cake (and even chocolate is acidic) is to complement it with a cup of acid: black tea or coffee. Better yet, espresso with a twist.

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One way to get around that overwhelming sweetness of a non-acid dessert like cake (and even chocolate is acidic) is to complement it with a cup of acid: black tea or coffee. Better yet, espresso with a twist.

While I agree that coffee and tea can balance the sweetness of desserts, I'm not sure it's acid that does it. They're both bitter, and bitterness (think chocolate) balances sweetness as well as acid does, just on another axis.

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