How much does lemon or vinegar matter to a dish?

Chef Collin showing students how to cook brocolli

by Collin Morstein, ScratchMade Owner 

I recently had the opportunity to work with TasteWise Kids and a group of high school students. We discussed – and of course demonstrated with hands-on taste tests -how to take an ingredient, or combination of ingredients from good to great with one simple addition – an acidic element. We wanted to share the highlights of the lesson with our larger TasteWise Kids community. 

What is acidity? 
Adding an acidic component (foods we’d consider to be sour) almost always enhances the flavors of a dish. A splash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon adds a brightness to foods that often doesn’t occur on its own. So with that in mind you’re following a recipe (or developing your own), you should always be thinking, “What’s my acid?” 

This was one of the most important lessons I learned as a cook and it has transformed the way I think about food. Classic dishes — those that have stood the test of time — usually have something in common: strong flavors enhanced by something acidic.

Why is acidity important?
Cooking is about balancing flavors. Sometimes we want to dull an excessively strong flavor, other times we want to amplify more subtle flavors. The dish should feel well-rounded, not overly sour, fatty, or sweet. Along with adding salt, the best way to achieve balance is through modifying the acidity of our foods. 

Most foods (meats, vegetables, nuts, fat) are basic, the opposite of acidic. That’s why we rely on acidic additives like those in the list below. Be careful l though — you can easily make foods too sour. The best way to avoid this is to always taste your food!

What are common acidic foods?

  • Citrus (lemons, limes, oranges)
  • Vinegars
  • Wine
  • Mustard
  • Tomatoes
  • Hot sauce
  • Cheese (such as ricotta and Parmesan)
  • Lacto-fermented foods (sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi)

Think about some examples of popular foods – and their acidic element:

  • Tomato sauce with pasta
  • Mustard on a hot-dog
  • Cheese on a grilled cheese
  • Vinegar in a salad dressing
  • Hot sauce on eggs
  • Lemon juice in a chicken marinade
  • Buttermilk in pancakes

Think about some of your favorite foods? What is the acidic element? Are there a couple of acidic elements that you tend to like best? 

Try it yourself
If you want to do your own acidic taste test at home, here is what we do with the student to help them see, and taste, the importance of adding in an acidic element.

  • Saute broccoli. Taste without lemon and then with it. Does the taste of the broccoli change/”pop”?
  • Put together guacamole without including lime. Taste without the lime and then with it. What do you notice?
  • Taste slice of bread with a layer of ricotta cheese spread on top. Then add a slice of tomato and a pinch of salt. What does the tomato and salt add?