Food & Drink

What Is Citric Acid, and How Do You Cook With It?

Amateur and professionals know: Acid is key to seasoning your food. Think of a spritz of lime over a coconut curry, the jolt of vinegar in a creamy dressing, or the tang from buttermilk in pancake batter. Many foods contain some amount of acid, but they often come with their own distinct flavors—it’s hard to make vinegar not smell fermented, and lime juice taste less like, well, lime.

That’s where citric acid comes in. This neutral-tasting acid is so remarkably versatile, you’ll find yourself reaching for it every time you cook.

What is citric acid?

Citric acid is a naturally occurring compound found in many fruits and vegetables. It’s available in powdered form, and if you’re a fan of all foods puckery and sour, you absolutely should be cooking with it.

While some citric acid is derived from lemon juice, the majority of citric acid commercially sold is extracted from a black mold called Aspergillus niger, which produces citric acid after it feeds on sugar. Industrially, it’s often used as a preservative, or as a pH regulator in large-scale food production. Not to mention, it’s what gives movie-theater sour gummy snacks and road-trip salt and vinegar chips their craveability.

Once you snag your very own citric acid, it’ll last in your pantry for a while—up to three years. It’s so much more than just adding tang. It’s also a flavor enhancer much like salt, sugar, or MSG. In fact, it’s sometimes called sour salt.

How to cook with citric acid

Use citric acid as you would more familiar seasonings—sparingly but often. With citric acid, a little goes a long way, so add it slowly and taste as you go. Add a pinch to soups, pasta sauces, marinades, or even dry rubs. If you’re unsure how much to use, follow the general rule that ¼ tsp. of citric acid is equivalent to about 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice.

Besides sprinkling over just about anything and everything that needs a flavor lift, citric acid is particularly useful when you want to avoid adding extra liquid to a dish. A pinch of citric acid will add punch to your salad dressing without breaking the emulsion, and it will add tang to a buttercream that might be ruined by the addition of extra liquid.

Desserts that feature non-lemon citrus (like oranges or grapefruit), low-acid berries (like blueberries or blackberries), or other very sweet fruits (like mangos and pineapple) benefit greatly from a sprinkle of citric acid. It enhances natural fruity flavors without diluting them. Try it in curds, jams, pies, or ice creams.

Besides being a fantastic addition to your spice cabinet, citric acid has numerous uses, from preserving to cheesemaking to even household cleaning. Citric acid is easily found online (like this one by Milliard), but you may have luck finding it at a local specialty store. Start by buying a small quantity the first time around, since it lasts so long. Once you start using citric acid, you may find yourself reaching for it all the time.

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