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.
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.”
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“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.