In cooking, achieving a well-balanced synergy of flavours involves a Chef’s knowledge of what food items or chemical compounds affect the sour notes of a dish.


Sourness, or tartness, is the taste that detects the presence of acids in our foods brought on by hydrogen ions. The chemical symbol: H+, split off by an acid dissolved in a diluted solution. It is primarily acidic solutions like lemon juice or organic acids that taste sour. 

Restaurant kitchens typically reach out for the following as ingredients:

  1. Vinegar – Provides a pleasant source of tartness and is available in various varieties such as the delicate rice vinegar, champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar and the more powerful balsamic. Many flavorful kinds of vinegar are wine-based. 
  2. Citrus Juice – Main examples are lemon juice, lime juice, and grapefruit juice. 
  3. Tomatoes – this fruit displays balanced elements of tart acidity and sweetness 
  4. Cultured Dairy – Yogurt, buttermilk, and sour cream add tang and richness. 
  5. Fresh and Dried Fruit – fruits with tart flavour profiles include pomegranate, pineapple, blueberry, and cranberry.
  6. Fermented and Pickled Foods – Fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut and pickles, have a signature tang that is a little sour and savoury.


But Chefs know that simply making food sour is not the end game for acidic flavours. What else do we need to know about sour and acidic notes?


Sour tastes help us determine if food is good or bad to eat. 


Spoiled and rotted food often tastes sour. Due to the presence of bacteria called spoilage, bacteria/microbes produce acid as they consume the food nutrients and multiply. They also produce acid to create a barrier for other microbes so that they alone can survive and protect their newly found resources. 

This applies to the lactic acid in milk, which increases concentration when the milk gets too old for consumption.

Acidity can also mean that fruits are still young and unripe. The unripe fruit is full of citric acid, which results in a taste that is too sour. This is because the fruit sugars have not yet matured. When the fruit matures, Ethylene is produced, which converts complex carbs in the fruit to simple sugar. This process neutralizes the acidic content of the fruit, making the ripe fruits sweet.


Livens a dish


Acidity can brighten up a dish. Take a squeeze of lime, for example, on how it adds pivotal flavour to what could be an otherwise bland dish or when you feel like what you are cooking is missing something. 

Sour flavours depend on acidity to give them that distinct mouth-puckering taste. So the minor addition of a sour ingredient can brighten up a dish. 


Counteracts sweetness


An overly sweet dish can be toned down by adding a sour ingredient.  Fruits such as cherries or blackberries work well in sweet baked goods such as cookies, pies and cakes. Tangy flavours from creme fraiche or cream cheese can balance the dessert’s sweetness. 


Counteracts Heat or Spiciness


Sour notes soften the spiciness of a dish.  How?

Chilis contain a compound called Capsaicin which is responsible for the heat sensation when it comes in contact with your mucous membrane when eaten or when it comes in contact with skin. Since Capsaicin is an alkaline oil, its intensity may be offset with cooking acids.

A squeeze of lime is good to balance a super spicy taco, or why a dollop of yogurt is perfect for a spicy stew or curry. 


Counteracts Saltiness and Bitterness


If a dish goes overly salted, add a sour ingredient to distract the tastebuds and downplay the saltiness. 


RELATED READ: Understanding The Elements of Taste: Sugar and Other Sweet Compounds


In Summary:

Similar to saltiness, sourness and acidity are usually pleasurable in small quantities but not in large quantities. If you’ve taken that tanginess too far, adding a sweet ingredient or a pinch of salt will help.


That’s it for this week.
As always, Professional Chefs on Call at Anytime!

Ciao for now,


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