Ask chefs to name the top ingredients they can’t cook without and chances are that acid in the form of citrus will make the list.
It doesn’t take much—often a sprinkle will do the job. But how does it work? Chef Mike Buononato breaks down what’s happening when acidity hits a dish. He develops flavors and food products for Creative Food Solutions, a culinary research, development and consulting firm in Newburg, New York.
Chef speak: Citrus makes flavors “pop.”
Translation: Your taste buds are popping. The mix of sour acids and water releases hydrogen ions that activate the tiny taste buds on the sides of your tongue. This triggers excess saliva, which breaks down food for maximum flavor extraction.
Chef speak: Citrus brightens flavors.
Translation: Our brains are hardwired to associate certain stimuli with colors. When acid whets your appetite, the brain perceives this to be energizing, subliminally evoking colors like yellow or orange.
Chef speak: Citrus rounds out flavors.
Translation: It’s really about balance. Straight sugar is cloying. Pure sour makes you pucker. The marriage of sugar and acid mellow each other out, generating “complex flavors.” No single taste dominates another.
Chef speak: Acid cuts fat.
Translation: Unlike sodium, which intensifies saltiness, citrus acid intensifies all surrounding flavors. But citrus also modifies the texture of food, softening the mouthfeel so fats don’t lay on the tongue.
Chef speak: Raw seafood loves citrus.
Translation: We eat with our noses as much as our taste buds. Squeezing fresh citrus over raw seafood preserves its aromatics instead of diminishing them.