No, powdered acids don’t give you the complex aroma of lemon or lime juice. No, they don’t add the crunch of a slice of tart Granny Smith apple. But that is exactly why they deserve a place in your pantry.
Powdered acids give you full control over acidity without bringing anything else to the table. Think about how you use salt—you stock your pantry with plenty of salty ingredients, but do you turn to them any and every time a dish needs more salt?
No, most often you reach for a pinch of straight sodium chloride. Powdered acids are similarly versatile and flexible when it comes to sourness—and that’s why they deserve as much of a place in your pantry as kosher salt and granulated sugar.
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The Science of Sour
There are 5 basic tastes that we can detect on tongues. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Sour is the least researched of these tastes—it was only in 2018 that a receptor for sour taste was actually identified. It’s called OTOP1. According to scientists who study it, it’s an unusual protein that allows protons to cross cell walls.
So these days we know a bit more about how it works, but what about the question of why it works? Why did we evolve the ability to taste sour?
Being able to taste sweetness is critical to finding and consuming calories. We pick up salty taste because salt is an essential nutrient for physiological processes. And bitter is a pretty good signal of toxic material, as most toxic foods contain bitter alkaloids.
But with sour—well, we are much less certain.
One interesting theory is that the ability to taste acids might have allowed our ancestors to determine that somefoods past their prime were still safe to eat. Rotted foods could make ancestral humans sick, but if the rotting was done by lactic acid bacteria, which acidifies the food and kills many potentially harmful microbes, it would be safe to consume.
Cook's ScienceUnderstanding how ingredients work—at the molecular level as well as at the stovetop—allows you to amplify flavor and perfect their structure when you cook. These intriguing test kitchen experiments tell you what’s really happening when you cook, and full-page illustrations show you how ingredients get from farm (or sea) to table.
The Importance of Acids in Food
Acids are invaluable in cooking. They increase saliva production and are a particularly valuable counter to rich, fatty foods.
Knowing how to balance acid and fat, as we do in a vinaigrette and countless other preparations, is as valuable to a cook as understanding how to use salt.
Acid also counterbalances sweetness, particularly in fruits. A super ripe, juicy peach is still packed with acids that prevent the fruit from being cloyingly sweet.
Beyond taste, acids can also physically change foods, particularly protein-rich ones (like how acid turns raw fish into ceviche).
Types of Acids in Food
Below are some of the most common types of acids found in fruits and vegetables. Each can easily be found in powdered form online.
Malic: The predominant acid in fruits like apples, plums, apricots, and cherries. Malic tastes like a Granny Smith apple, and it lingers on the palate.
Citric: The primary acid in citrus fruits, berries, pomegranate, pears, and most tropical fruits. Citric is a quick sharp zing. Compared to malic, it is more intense and short-lived.
Tartaric: An important acid in wine, tartaric is found in grapes. But it also shows up in cherries, lemons, bananas, and even avocados.
Ascorbic (Also known as vitamin C): Found in citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts (to name a few). It is a vitamin our body needs. It is a powerful antioxidant and shows up in many packaged foods where oxidation can cause off colors and flavors.
How to Use Powdered Acids in the Kitchen
When we reach for lemons and limes to add sourness to a dish, in addition to acidity, we also bring flavor, often a bunch of liquid, and sometimes different textures. Dry acids eliminate those other factors. Here are a few use cases:
Make a Punchier Vinaigrette
The classic vinaigrette ratio is 3:1, 3 parts oil to 1 part acid solution, like vinegar or lemon juice.
By reaching for citric acid, we can tweak this ratio.
Adding a pinch of citric acid amps acidity without adding more water in the form of citrus juice. To balance the additional acidity, you can then increase the oil from 3 parts to 4 parts, and attain a thicker, more lush vinaigrette with a higher ratio of tasty olive oil, while still keeping the perfect acid-fat balance.
Season Fried and Other Crispy Foods
One of the surest ways to sog out crispy foods is to toss them with watery ingredients.
Want to make a nice lemon pepper seasoning for chicken wings? Do as our friends over at Cook’s Country do and add ½ teaspoon (3.5 grams) citric acid to the mix. Your wings stay crispy and you get that sour taste with no extra liquid.
This tip also works great on popcorn, potato chips, and any other crisp food you want to brighten up.
Make Lemon- or Lime-Strength Juices
With dry acids we can take, for example, orange juice, and bring its pH down to that of lemons and limes.
Why? Because lime-strength orange juice is so much more versatile. You can use it in any recipe that calls for lemon or lime juice.
CI Senior Science Research Editor Paul Adams put this to good use in a cocktail he calls the Creema di Leema: It’s essentially a Ramos Gin Fizz but with sweet, aromatic orange juice. Check out the full recipe here:
Creema di Leema CocktailA breezy, juicy, luxurious kick in the pants.
And to learn even more about powdered acids, watch the full episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.