Participants working in the kitchen during the "Savoring the Flavors of Spain and Portugal"

If you’ve watched any TV cooking show, you’ve probably heard, “It needs more acid.” But do you know what that means?

When chefs create a dish, they always consider the balance of flavors. All of the ingredients in a recipe should mingle, but they should never compete. Of course, individual flavors must be in sync, but in general, balance is more about the use of our tastes: salty, sweet, sour, and savory (or umami).

Sourness in a dish comes from the use of acidic ingredients, like lemon juice, vinegar, and tomatoes. But using acid isn’t always about introducing a truly sour element, and often, acidic ingredients are added to enhance (or “brighten”) the flavors of the overall dish. A squeeze of lemon juice can act in the way salt does to enhance the flavor of a dish without adding an identifiable flavor element. This is the difference between adding a squeeze of lemon to make cream of broccoli soup pop, rather than adding more lime to your pico de gallo because it needs more lime flavor.

This is what chefs (or reality TV hosts) are referring to when they suggest that a dish needs more acid. It may be a bit bland or a bit too rich, and just a touch of acidity will round it out. It’s why we squeeze lemon over fried calamari or fish and chips. And while neutral-flavored lemon juice is a common go-to, there are many ingredients used to add acidity that you may not think of.

Lemon slice with fish and chips.

Have you ever sprinkled red wine vinegar on your sandwich? Acid! Do you like hot sauce on your mac and cheese? Acid! Care for a drizzle of yogurt-y tzatziki sauce when you eat a gyro? Ding ding ding – yogurt is an acidic ingredient!

Beer and cheddar soup

Cooking with these ingredients can be more than just a drop at the end. Adding acidic ingredients early in the cooking process can help create a rich, flavorful base for a dish. If your dish starts with cooked onions or other aromatic ingredients, that’s a great time to add wine, vinegar, chopped tomatoes, or tomato paste. Let it cook and reduce before continuing with your other ingredients.

Whichever way you add your acid, take it slow. Just as a touch can bring a dish into balance, too much can overpower and ruin an otherwise perfect meal. If you aren’t sure about which flavor is best, mix small portions in a separate bowl to see what works before fully committing. After all, you don’t want to disappoint the judges!

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