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The Trick to Adding Oomph to Blah Food

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Acid is one of the essential elements of cooking, so we partnered with Maille to share tips on how to use it in your everyday cooking.

When you think of acid, you probably think of citrus juices and vinegars of all stripes, maybe buttermilk too—tangy and mouth-twisting and eyebrow-raising. This is one of the things that acid does, but it’s certainly not the only thing: It brightens, it tenderizes, it deglazes pans. But as Samin Nosrat writes in the introduction to Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s chapter on acid, pucker is just the beginning of acid’s power. Its chief gift is balance.

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Pick a pair (of acid + fat)! Clockwise from top left: lemons + oil, eggs + mustard, pickles + cheese, tomato + dairy, milk + coffee, wine + steak, potato chips + vinegar
Pick a pair (of acid + fat)! Clockwise from top left: lemons + oil, eggs + mustard, pickles + cheese, tomato + dairy, milk + coffee, wine + steak, potato chips + vinegar Photo by Julia Gartland

Balance in that it gives whatever it touches a sense of confidence: The grilled cheese needs a snappy pickle on the side to nudge the meal from one-note to harmonious; cucumber tastes sweeter and truer with tangy feta or buttermilk dressing. Acid used like this—in intentional, well-placed slashes rather than modest here-and-theres—feels like an epiphany. Samin had hers over a pot of carrot soup in the kitchen at Chez Panisse: She nervously adds a capful of vinegar to the soup per the chef’s urging, and instead of making a “sweet-and-sour abomination,” the “vinegar acted like a prism, revealing the soup’s nuanced flavors.” Even still, “never in a million years would I have been able to identify vinegar as one of the ingredients.”

“Prism” is really the perfect word for what acid does: It transforms a beam of lovely, bright white light into a broad fan of colors on the other. We don’t realize what we’re missing until we add it.

Think about how tomatoes and dairy sing together. The acid in tomatoes balances the richness of the dairy, while the richness of the dairy smooths tomatoes’ bite. Tomato and dairy may seem an unlikely duo, but they balance each other, revealing the prism’s rainbow—in Caprese salads, bolognese, salsa and queso. Think, too, of the welcome tang a dot of sour cream or crème fraîche brings to a sweet, rich dessert, or how a lick of cream makes a cup of coffee less of a jolt and more of a comfort. If you’re eating a lackluster anything, I bet you the je ne sais quois it’s missing is acid, acid, acid.

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Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Tried and True Acid-and-Fat Duos

  • Coffee and cream
  • Steak and red wine
  • Vinegary potato chips (or malt vinegar French fries!)
  • Eggs and mustard
  • Cheese and pickles
  • Butter and tomatoes (like in Marcella's famous sauce!)
  • Or butter and lemon or white wine!
  • Bacon (or Buffalo wings) and blue cheese
  • Mayonnaise and tomatoes
  • Fish and lemon
  • Cheese and beer
  • Chocolate and orange
Photo by James Ransom

All April, Kitchen Confidence Camp takes us through the four essential elements of cooking, inspired by chef and author Samin Nosrat's cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Follow along here.

We partnered with Maille to share tips for how to add some oomph to your everyday cooking with acid-forward #FlavorHeroes, like their mustard and pickles.

Tags: maille, samin nosrat, kitchen confidence camp