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Kitchen Acids - When to Use Acids in Cooking

Updated on January 8, 2012
Photo - All rights reserved by romeonoi via Flickr
Photo - All rights reserved by romeonoi via Flickr

Making Acids Your Friends!

Acids – mmmmmm. Acids are among the most wonderful, bright, popping flavors in the kitchen. This group includes such beautiful little lovelies as lemons, vinegars and wines. They not only taste yummy on their own, they give freely of their brightness to a nearly infinite variety of other foods. Not only that – but they can serve as a little magic potion when used in combination with foods that are delicate in nature, serving to keep them bright, beautiful, texturally appealing and luscious in mouth feel. Acids work miracles with all kinds of foods, from delicate fruits and vegetables like apples, pears and avocados, to hardier veggies like broccoli and asparagus, to proteins and meats – all of them!

How do they do that?

An acid simply serves to lower the ph of a food, either on the surface when using an adulated wash, or more deeply, as in a marinade.

1. If you are working with some fruits and vegetables, you may have noticed that once cut, and the flesh is exposed to the air, it begins to turn a rather unappetizing mushy brown. This is the result of oxidation. Honestly it won’t hurt anything – but it looks nasty and can affect the texture. This is easy to solve. Make an acidulated water.

a. The term ‘acidulated’ simply means that you’ve added an acid to water. Big word for a very simple process. You do this every time you add a slice of lemon to your ice water.

b. You can use any kind of acid, but most of the time the foods you’ll be working with using an acidulated water (or wash) will be fruits – apples, pears, or avocados. The acids that work best with these are the same ones you use in recipes with them. That would primarily be citrus juices. You’ll almost always see lemon juice in recipes for apple pies, and lime in recipes for guacamole. That’s because those foods and flavors were made to go with one another. Think of lemon and apple like Romeo (or Rome apples – bahahaha! Sorry. Horrible foodie nerd joke) and Juliet.

c. You can certainly use vinegar instead of citrus if you wish. Matter of fact, apple cider vinegar is fabulous for this. If you make other substitutions, stick with lighter flavored, ‘softer’ vinegars – champagne, white wine or rice wine vinegar. Unless you really, really have a particular flavor in mind.

2. Acidulated washes or water prevent the oxidation of food in two ways.

a. The first is a physical barrier. The liquid you apply to the surface of the fruit prevents the oxygen from coming into contact with the flesh. No air – no browning.

b. The acid in the water will lower the pH of the flesh, which also will assist in preventing oxidation. Remember though – the acidulated water will only help in delaying the whole process. For this reason, use your items rather quickly.

3. If you use acids in the cooking water of vegetables, several things happen. Not only does the veggie pick up the flavor of the acid, which is yummy, but the vegetables will also maintain more of their color and texture. More color means a higher vitamin content – which is always a good thing. In addition you can use a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or a splash of vinegar in your broccoli pot, and avoid the salt that many recipes call for in order to accomplish the same thing. You may not be able to skip the salt altogether, but you’ll probably find you need far less – just a sprinkle at the table perhaps. And you have to admit, you don’t know anyone on a lemon restricted diet.

Acids and their uses don’t stop there – oh no my foodie friends! Aside from the loveliness that is acidulated water, and apart from standing as an ingredient as their own, acids have two other primary roles in the kitchen: in marinades and in vinaigrettes. Either of these topics could (and probably will be!) articles in and of themselves. But there are some basic bits that need to be stated here.

For marinades, an acid component can be anything you wish. I have used any and all acids you can think of with which to marinade meat or seafood. There are a couple of brief points that need to be state here.

1. If a marinade doesn’t contain an acid – it simply won’t penetrate the meat – at all. So pour all the garlic and olive oil you want on a steak, without a touch of red wine or vinegar or lemon, all you’re doing is prepping the thing for a massage. Friendly of you. But not flavorful friendly.

2. Even with an acid – most marinades won’t penetrate into the meat much more than just 1/8 of an inch, without a serious soaking time. Give your marinade time to work, and it’ll pay off in flavor bonus.

3. Any acid other than lactic acids (from soured dairy products) won’t tenderize meats, contrary to popular belief. They will either cure the exterior, make it mushy, or allow flavor to penetrate. So unless you use yogurt, buttermilk or sour cream, use with a spare hand. Try starting with no more than ¼ of your total marinade and taste. Yes I said taste. If it doesn’t taste right, fix it or don’t use it. Of course it will taste raw. But a key to success in the kitchen is in your own mouth. Your best tool is your taste buds. Learn to recognize flavors, before and after they are cooked, and you’ll always have something fabulous on the table.

Be careful when adding acids. Tasty as they are, if you soak the meat too long, you’ll end up curing it. A perfect example of this is the Peruvian classic known as ceviche. In this dish, seafood is ‘cooked’ entirely in citrus juices. This works because the acids will cause a denaturation of the proteins in meats and seafoods. (There are two ways to ‘cook’ meats – heat and acids).

Finally, acids play a critical role in the making of vinaigrettes – which serve not only as a salad dressing, but to top veggies, sauce meats, form the base of a marinade and a thousand other uses. There are no firm rules here – a good place to start is to use 1 part acid to 3 parts oil, then adjust to your liking. How much you end up using will depend on your final intention for it, the type of acid, the type of oil, how much aromatic you use (an aromatic is a strongly flavored ‘thing’ like garlic or rosemary). After that – the sky is the limit. They are infinitely adjustable to your liking – so play away.

I hope I’ve helped Acids are a one of the flavor pillars in the kitchens. A little understanding of how they work and what they can do will help a lot in making your dishes pop with flavor!



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    • Maggie Crooks profile image

      Maggie Crooks 3 years ago

      A very good and detailed lesson in what acids are and how to use them in cooking. Thanks.

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