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Beyond Salt: Try Acidic Seasonings

Beyond Salt: Try Acidic Seasonings

Russ Parsons | Los Angeles Times

When most cooks read “season to taste,” they automatically reach for the salt shaker. That’s not a bad start: A judicious sprinkling with salt will awaken many a dull dish. But if you stop there, many times you’ll be missing a key ingredient. Because just as a little salt unlocks flavor, so can a few drops of acidity.

Add a shot of vinegar to a simple stew of white beans and shrimp and notice how the seemingly simple, earthy flavor of the beans suddenly gains definition and complexity. Do the same thing with a soup of puréed winter squash and see how a dish that once was dominated by rich and sweet now has a round, full fruit character.

Though the results may be similar, salt and acidity work slightly differently. Salt is a flavor potentiator — in other words, it works chemically to make other flavors taste more of themselves. Acidity works as seasoning by giving a dish backbone or structure, which allows other flavors to stand out and shine.

It doesn’t take much. Just as with salt, you don’t want to taste the seasoning itself; you just want the effect it has on other flavors. Sometimes only a couple of drops of lemon juice will be all that it takes.

Most cooks understand this, at least on a subliminal level. After all, what would a salad taste like dressed only with oil? It’s the vinegar that makes vinaigrette. And think of the way just a squirt of lemon elevates the flavor of a simple piece of broiled or grilled fish.

How many times have you deglazed a roasting pan with red wine? It’s not just the fruit flavor you’re after, but the acidity. Cooking down tomatoes in a pot of sauce or soup has much the same effect.

Sweet and tart

If you’ve heard waiters go on about a “gastrique” served with a dish; it’s basically a syrup of boiled vinegar and sugar. Traditionally, it is used for seasoning dishes in which meat is combined with fruit. Used clumsily (as it too often is these days), it’s nothing more than a fancy version of sweet and sour sauce.

I wouldn’t think of cooking vegetables without at least tasting for acidity — a squirt of lemon for sautéed broccoli, a hit of red wine vinegar for summertime ratatouille. And almost every time I cook fruit, there’s bound to be a jolt of some kind of citrus to balance the sweetness.

But all acids are not created alike; this is cooking, not chemistry. Any well-stocked pantry should have several to choose from, each having its own character and flavor, in addition to that wonderfully useful tartness.