Sour Powders: Like Vinegar in Powdered Form

These sour dry ingredients—citric acid, True Lemon, amchoor, and sumac—can make your food taste better.

Published Jan. 30, 2023.

You rubbed your salmon/chicken/beef/cauliflower with a carefully calibrated array of spices and now want to add a little pucker for brightness. But applying vinegar would wash the spices off. What do you do?

You use a sour powder. Here are four such agents of sour flavor, along with suggestions for usage.

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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.


When you dry green, unripe mangoes and grind them to a powder, you have amchoor, a staple seasoning on the Indian subcontinent. It is commonly added to samosas and pakoras, chutneys, dals, pickles, soups and stews, and more. Amchoor is typically added at the end of cooking (or after cooking) to preserve its impact. 

SUGGESTED USES: In pakora, empanada, or other dumpling/hand pie fillings; atop mashed or roasted potatoes; in tuna or chicken salad; dusted on grilled poultry or seafood

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Citric Acid

This powdered chemical extract is used primarily for replacing lemon juice when canning tomatoes: The pH of tomatoes is an important safety factor when canning, and citric acid provides a reliable level of acidity so that you know your canned goods are food-safe. Citric acid, which is also known as “sour salt” for its sour flavor and resemblance to grains of salt, can be used to boost acidity in recipes, such as our Lemon Pepper Wings. Other culinary uses are to improve leavening, as a preservative, mixed with water and used as a browning inhibitor for cut produce (like potatoes or apples), and as a coagulating agent when making fresh cheese. The powder has a long shelf life and can be stored in the pantry.

SUGGESTED USES: Canning (especially tomatoes), wings


Lemon Pepper Wings

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Most sumac that’s sold as a spice is from the species Rhus coriaria, which is native to the Mediterranean; the plants bear crimson berries that are dried and ground into a tart, lemony, perfumy powder that’s a staple spice in Middle Eastern cooking, including its role as a key component in za'atar seasoning. Sumac is fantastic atop hummus and flatbreads or as a rub for roasted or grilled fish, chicken, beef, or lamb. 

In North America, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) grows wild throughout the Midwest and Eastern states; its bright red berries can be used the same way, as their flavor is similar. 

A word of caution for foragers: There is a species of poisonous sumac (Rhus vernix) in North America that produces white (or green) berries.

SUGGESTED USES: Homemade za'atar (see below); spice rubs for meat, fish, or poultry; stirred into mayonnaise-based salads; sprinkled over hummus or other vegetable dips


Makes about ⅓ cup

Total Time: 10 minutes

  • 2 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1½ tablespoons sumac
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
  • ¼ teaspoon table salt

Process thyme and oregano in spice grinder or mortar and pestle until finely ground and powdery. Transfer to bowl and stir in sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. (Za'atar can be stored at room temperature in airtight container for up to 1 year.

True Lemon

This shelf-stable powder bills itself as “crystalized lemon” and contains citric acid, lemon oil, and lemon juice. The box states that “each packet equals the taste of 1 lemon wedge,” and suggested uses include adding it to water, tea, and recipes. While you won’t fool anyone if you try to make lemonade with this product (we tried it), we did find it acceptably lemony and clean-tasting in a lemon tart and in a pan sauce for chicken. 

SUGGESTED USES: In iced tea, in curds and cakes

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