Cooking with Acids in the kitchen
Learning to cook with acids in the kitchen
When you ask most people how they learnt to cook, often the reply is following recipes. Recipes themselves can be perfect in helping you replicate a dish you have loved or provide inspiration to mix things up in your daily repertoire.
But recipes, for all their precision and detail, are not the best teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it. Learning this way takes a long time and a lot of repetition to work out the patterns and fixes if something is not tasting quite right.
Samin Nosat’s book, Salt Fat Acid Heat Mastering the elements of good cooking tries to counter this by working through the 4 elements of cooking that contribute to flavour and take a dish from good to exceptional.
She teaches you step by step on how to master great flavour by building it at each stage through a dish. When you master the basic principles it becomes much easier to switch things for what you might have in your pantry or know what to add if things taste a bit flat or one flavour is overpowering.
The fun of cooking (and learning to cook in this way) is that once you master the priples of creating flavour you can choose-your-own adventure.
Salt, Fat, Acid Heat also gives clarity on the understanding of how acids affect the flavour and texture of food. Once you understand when to add them. They can be an ace card in your cooking game.
What is an acid and what do they bring to a dish?
Acids are foods or ingredients that have a PH lower than 7. Think vinegars, Lemon, buttermilk and wines. In foods acids can be described as sour, tangy, vinegary, bright, sharp.
Acid contrasts with other tastes that heightens our pleasure in food. They balance out sweet, salt, bitter and umami, thus preventing one taste from dominating the proceedings
How do you brighten flavour with an acid?
If a dish tastes flat and you have added enough salt the next go to, would be to add a splash of acidity. Think pickles on a sausage or sandwich, a squeeze of lemon juice over your greens. If a dish is too acidic or sour, the way to achieve balance is to add fat or sugar to mute the sourness.
Some other ideas:
Add vinegar We love the complex sweet-sour taste of our Acteo balsamic on dumplings in a beef stew or Bolognese. Sweets can also taste better with a little bit of acid: Try Balsamic over your vanilla ice cream
Get creative with different sour acids. A touch of sour cream can be an ace card with added icing sugar or cream on top of a cake or biscuits.
Keep tasting too!
Samin Nosat is big on tasting at every step. With fresh produce you will never get the exactly the same flavour from season to season. Fruit and vegetables can vary in their levels of sweetness and tartness, so you may need to alter from a recipe and adjust your levels of seasoning accordingly.
A great way to test work out your preferences and to get used to using tasting acidity is to make a vinaigrette. You can make lots of different versions and practice adding more oil, lemon or acid to balance out saltiness and honey to soften acidic flavours. 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
Play around with these ingredients:
- Extra virgin (Punchy or Smooth) for your base
- Vinegar Aceto or other
- Dijon mustard for some flavour complexity and creaminess
- Maple syrup or honey Garlic or shallot
- Salt and pepper
Another trick when creating dressings is to give the acid time when macerating or softening some of the harshness of onions or shallots. Use a splash or citrus or vinegar on your onions and wait 15 minutes or so before adding the oil. This will remove some of that harshness of the onions before continuing to build the dressing.
Or follow the recipe here:
Sometimes a single form of acid isn’t enough. A dish can often benefit from several forms of acids.
When thinking about cooking acids, consider which acid or combination to use and what part of the cooking process to add them. They can be used both in the cooking process and then again to garnish. In combination with heat, cooking with acidic ingredients can soften a dish's harsh edges.
Samin Nosrat uses the example of beer in a pot of chilli, wine in a risotto or the tomatoes in a pasta sauce as acids that will stop the dominance of the sweetness from browning or an aromatic onion garlic base. This all helps create balance and depth in flavour. These cooking acids tend to be subtle and transform the foods in which they are cooked slowly over time. While they are subtle it will be hard to make things taste quite right with their absence.
Recipes can lead us to believe that cooking is a straightforward process, while most good food results from being present stirred, tasted and adjusted. If you add more of one ingredient it will affect the amount of the other ingredients you will need to add. Sweet dish recipes might need to be followed a little more carefully than savoury ones. If cooking a dish for the first time Samin Norsrat suggests, read several different recipes and work out which techniques and flavourings are common to the recipes and which are different. This will help you work out which steps you need to follow and where you can improvise a little more.