Whenever I can’t quite figure out what a dish needs, the answer is usually acid. It simultaneously intensifies and balances flavours like nothing else—even when you can’t immediately tell it’s there. To me, a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar is just as transformative as a sprinkle of MSG.
This is why powdered citric acid is a non-negotiable member of my seasoning arsenal. If you’ve never cooked or baked with it, you’re missing out. It’s a super-concentrated sour powder that you can add to literally any dish. Since its only noticeable flavour is “sour,” citric acid lets you tweak the acidity levels in a dish without overpowering any of the other flavours, which is always a risk with something like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. It’s also great for dishes that benefit from a little tartness but absolutely do not need any additional liquid. (The secret to my apple pie filling, besides salt, is a healthy dose of citric acid.) As a devoted lemon dessert stan, I love citric acid for baking, but I’ll add a little sprinkle to soups, stews, tomato sauce, pickles, mayonnaise, vinaigrettes, marinades, or anything else that needs a little something extra. It really is sour MSG—so much so that they live side by side in my pantry.
Unlike its savoury cousin, though, citric acid is so much more than a seasoning; it’s also a food-safe pH adjuster. Adding the smallest pinch to cake batter or biscuit dough enhances the leavening power of baking soda; it also slows oxidation significantly, so it’ll keep your fruit salad or guacamole from browning too quickly. You can even use a citric acid solution to descale your coffee maker and clean hard water residue from your glassware—roughly a tablespoon per gallon of water should do the trick. Basically, whenever you need an acid that’s stronger than vinegar but still safe to eat, citric acid is there to help.
Despite its staggeringly many uses, citric acid isn’t considered a pantry staple like salt or MSG. Still, it’s easier to get ahold of than you might think. There’s actually a decent chance your supermarket carries it in the spice aisle—but the label might say “sour salt” instead of citric acid. (Don’t let the name throw you off; there’s no salt involved.) Failing that, you can of course order it online, where it’s both cheap and abundant. A two-pound bag might seem excessive, but trust me: you’ll find a way to use it.