Cooking Tips
Put Down the Salt and Season Your Food with Vinegar
You may be oversalting your food when a simple splash of acid could do the trick.
11-30-2021
Eden Faithfull

We’ve all been there: a dish you’ve prepared ends up being a little more bland than you had anticipated, and in the hopes of reviving it you launch a rescue mission, adding a little more salt—a pinch at a time—until the entire meal becomes oversalted and borderline inedible.

It’s an easy mistake to make, but there’s a way to avoid it. If you find that your pasta lacks pop or your ziti needs a zap, forgo the salt. Instead, turn to a different flavor enhancer: acid.

You may have noticed that many America’s Test Kitchen recipes for soups, stews, and lots more call for a splash of fresh lemon juice or a touch of apple cider vinegar at the end of the cooking process to “awaken” the flavors of the dish. To avoid overseasoning your food, these recipes include built-in acidity for a more delicious dinner.

“A splash of acid provides contrast, most typically. If a dish is rich or salty or sweet or heavy—or all of the above—it can be hard to eat more than a couple bites before your palate starts feeling overwhelmed,” Paul Adams, senior research editor of Cook’s Illustrated, explained.

Acidity gives balance and sort of broadens the scope of the tasting experience, so there's more elbow room to enjoy the dish.

And when it comes to the cold, hard science of it all, a splash of lemon juice does more than stimulate our tastebuds—it triggers an autonomic response that helps our mouths break down food, making eating it a more pleasurable experience.

“Physiologically, acid stimulates salivation, so it gives a juicy, refreshing mouthfeel,” Paul said. “Adding salt (or sugar or MSG) tends to intensify the flavor experience that's already there, whereas acid balances it.”

Acquacotta

Cook’s Illustrated suggests that as little as ⅛ teaspoon of acid can effectively combat the bitter notes of certain flavors and help “brighten” a dish, as in ATK’s Potato Roesti, which calls for a sprinkle of sherry vinegar, or Pan-Seared Swordfish Steaks, which are served with lemon wedges to be squeezed directly onto the meat before eating.

The easiest options for adding acid to a dish are citrus and vinegar. Use a plain white wine vinegar (ideally of at least 6 percent acidity, so a little goes a long way) or one matched to the other flavors of the dish (such as red wine vinegar in a sauce containing red wine). With just a dash you may find you need that much less salt.


Want to learn these six recipes, our all-time reader favorites? Start a free trial to access all these, plus our other home kitchen–tested, foolproof recipes.