What Type of Substances Are Lemon Juice & Vinegar?

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Sourness is one of the basic flavors your taste buds perceive, and both lemon juice and vinegar are prime examples. While the two substances taste somewhat differently, they both have a mouth-puckering, but freshening, effect in your mouth. Scientifically speaking, lemon juice translates to citric acid and vinegar to acetic acid. Both substances brighten the flavors in salad dressings, sauces, potato salad, risotto and chili.

The pH Scale

  • The pH scale measures the "potential of hydrogen ion" in substances or, in other words, the chemical structure that makes them either sour, neutral or bitter. Lemon juice is highly acidic, or sour, and scores a 2 on the pH scale of 0 to 14, with battery acid, the most acidic substance, falling below it at 0. Vinegar is only slightly less acidic than lemon juice, scoring 3 on the pH scale. Rainwater is a neutral substance at 6, and lye is highly alkaline, or base, ranking at 14.

Balancing Tastes

  • Food tastes best when it has layers of flavors and is not dominated by just one strong taste or texture. Acidity adds an additional flavor and also brings a bit of brightness to the food. A rich cheesecake, for example, with lots of fat and sugar, tastes even better with a bit of lemon juice or zest added to the batter. And without a drizzle of vinegar added to the oil for dressing a salad made with blue cheese, the salad would taste heavy and dull.

Marinades

  • Lemon juice and vinegar marinades break down the cell structure in meats, poultry and fish, tenderizing them and adding flavor. Tough beef muscles need longer marinating times to break down -- anywhere from 1 to 3 hours -- while tender fish fillets need only 10 to 15 minutes to absorb the bright flavor of lemon juice. Always use glass, safe ceramic or stainless steel when marinating with acidic substances to avoid pitting aluminum containers and possibly ingesting aluminum itself.

Complexity

  • While lemon juice comes from a single source, vinegar is a complex substance made by bacteria reacting in a fermented liquid. Cider vinegar, made from fermented apple cider, features a faint apple flavor. White, red and champagne vinegars have either strong or subtle flavors depending on which wine the vinegar manufacturer used. Vinegar is typically less intense than lemon juice, and is sometimes drizzled directly on berries for a simple, but elegant dessert.

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