It’s generally agreed that the most commonly used preservative in the world is salt and has been since ancient times. However, just slightly behind it is citric acid – either straight or through the use of strong citric fruit like lemons and limes. For thousands of years, citric acid has been an incredibly important part of food creation and preservation, and it continues to be so to this day.
In the 1800s, methods were developed to produce and isolate citric acid directly, leading to its quick adoption in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries around the world. Today, more than a million tons of citric acid are used every year.
This has led to it having a huge variety of uses, including a few that might surprise you.
Five Common Uses of Citric Acid Today
- Food preservation
The most common use of citric acid is for food preservation, particularly canned foods. Whenever botulism is a concern, the addition of citric acid helps neutralize it. This also extends to jams, jellies, and even bouillon cubes.
Citric acid is also a highly popular flavoring agent, adding sour notes to a food product while also raising its pH levels. Almost any packaged food with a sour flavor profile probably has some citric acid in it. The “raw” powder can even be added directly to products, such as the dust coating most sour candies.
- Cheese production
One of the oldest applications of citric acid is in the creation of cheese. Adding citric fruit juice to a pot of near-boiling milk will cause curd separation, leading to non-aged cheeses such as Italian ricotta and Indian paneer. It’s also utilized in commercial-grade cheese production in a similar capacity.
- Softening meat
Both commercial kitchens and home kitchens often use citric acid as a way to tenderize meat, breaking down the tougher bits of gristle. It also can aid in marinating, by breaking down the very outside of the meat’s surface.
- Wine souring
Cheap wines often add some citric acid specifically to raise the pH and create a sourer flavor, to prevent them from merely tasting like alcoholic grape juice. However, this is rarely, if ever, done among serious winemakers.
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