Lemons: the secret to beautifully seasonned dishes
Seasoning a dish means finishing a dish with condiments to balance flavors. Lemons, or acids in general, are I believe, the number one less know secret to achieving great flavor in dishes. You know how you use salt and pepper to season anything? You should learn to add lemon in your “spice mix” too!
“While salt enhances flavor and fat carries it, acid balances them” Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat
Not convinced yet to put lemon on everything? In this post, I will share why acids are important, which ones to use and when. Finally, I will share some ideas to get you started with acids in your recipes!
1. Let’s unpack why acid makes all your dishes taste better:
a) Acid enhances all tastes in your dish by making your mouth salivate
They are the 5 principal tastes that you can feel in your mouth.
4. Umami (more on that in a later post, it is the taste of “mouthful” you can find in soy sauce, mushrooms, meat or wine, for instance)
5. And Acid!
Good dishes rely on the harmony between these flavors.
All these tastes are exposed in your mouth through saliva, which acts as a conductor and transporter to your taste buds. No taste without saliva! What is special about acidic flavors is that they make your mouth salivate. So, in addition to feeling the acidic taste integrating acid in your dish will enhance all other taste by bringing more saliva. Talk about mouthwatering good food coming your way!
Just test it out! Sometimes just thinking about something acidic such as lemon juice or acidic candies will make your mouth salivate!
b) Acids balance out other tastes such as sugar and salt
Heard about sweet and sour anyone? Acidity brings balance to both sweet and savory notes in your dish. Furthermore, this does not work with only salty dishes! Think about the beautiful tartness of a raspberry combined with a sugary vanilla sauce: that is acid again playing a key role in your dish balance.
Secret bonus tip: Do you know how to fix too salty food? Bring in a bit of acidity to balance it out.
c) Acids cut the fat by bringing freshness to the dish
When you have a heavy fatty dish, lemon or acids will cut or counterbalance the fattiness in your recipe. This is often referred to as “brightening a dish”. For instance, great chefs add a squeeze of lemon in mashed potatoes https://www.epicurious.com/ingredients/how-to-use-lemon-juice-to-finish-a-dish-recipes-article
My grandmother also always added a bit of lemon at the end of a mushroom risotto (she liked to go heavy on the butter!). In Indian cuisine also, which is quite rich, you will often see pickles because they refresh your mouth (and help with digestion, of course, as they are often fermented)
2. Which acids to use?
All acids are not created equals. Samin, in her book salt, fat, acid, heat, classifies acids into 4 categories:
· Vinegars (count wines as a type of vinegar): white/red vine, red vinegar, balsamic vinegar
· Citrus: oranges, lemons
· Pickles: red pickled onions, capers
· Dairy: such as feta cheese or sour cream
The right type of acid will depend on your style of cooking and the dish you are trying to prepare. Layering different types of acids is also a great option. For instance, in a risotto you might add white vinegar to the rice before starting to cook it in the broth and then a final squeeze a lemon at the end before serving.
Please, do not use artificial lemon juice as they are not as acidic and floral as true fresh lemon juice.
3. When to add acidity to enhance flavor?
Most acidic ingredients will be added at the end of cooking since they tend to impact your food color if you add them to early and cook them at high temperature.
Exceptions would be wine and vinegars as they are often used during cooking to tenderize meat. This is rather linked to the capacity of acids to marinate or soften tough protein molecules.
4. In practice: Ready, go, let’s get started adding acids to your dishes!
Feel free to experiment!
To start, a squeeze of lemon at the end is the simplest way to practice adding acidity to a dish. Fresh lemon taste is very floral and will also go with most dishes. Using it at the end, it will easily allow you to modify or add seasoning and taste gradually. Lemon juice is also easy to add to soup or sauce to enhance their favour. Additionally, you could also crumble a bit of feta cheese (acidic cheese) on top of vegetables for a nice taste contrast.
On a side note, lemons also offer interesting health benefits. They are anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and rich in vitamin C. Helen West describes it more here