Ron Ben-Israel's Ultimate Secret Ingredient

Ron Ben-Israel, pastry chef and couture cake artist, whose creations have been featured in The New York Times, Town and Country, and Martha Stewart Weddings (per Food Network), has some help for us amateurs looking to improve our cake-making and cooking skills. 

According to an article from the Food Network, his secret ingredient is citric acid. If you've never used it before, citric acid might sound like something from molecular gastronomy, but don't be intimidated by this easy-to-use ingredient.

Just what is citric acid? Naturally found in lemons, limes, and other citrus fruits, it's the compound that gives these fruits a sour taste, according to Healthline. A manufactured version of this acid is a common additive in many canned and frozen foods. It is also used as a flavor enhancer and preservative in jams and sodas. Sold in bags and jars in most supermarkets' baking aisles, it's also extremely handy to keep in your pantry or spice cabinet.

Epicurious explains that citric acid is just "straight-up acid," and acids are essential to creating balanced dishes, as are sweet, salty, bitter, and umami flavors. Ben-Israel, host of "Sweet Genius," recommends it for several uses. One is to heighten the flavor of any fruit dish. He says it provides a tartness without introducing additional flavors or diluting your recipe, as lemon juice would. According to Outstanding Foods, add it to your homemade dressings or marinades any time if it needs more acid.

Citric acid has multiple uses

In buttercream frosting, citric acid not only acts as a preservative but complements the sweetness of the sugar. In fact, the frosting in Milk Bar's famous birthday cake utilizes ⅛ teaspoon of the powder, according to Bon Appétit. Serious Eats says that in making jam, citric acid helps pectin hold the jelly together, in addition to providing some tartness and helping your jam last longer.

Have some tomatoes you don't know what to do with? Preserve it as a paste to freeze and use all winter with this recipe we found on Yummly. It requires just tomatoes, olive oil, sea salt, and citric acid.

Epicurious says citric acid is useful anytime "you want to add tang to a dish," but not extra liquid. Sometimes referred to as "sour salt," the website says a pinch in soups helps to balance flavors, while adding half a teaspoon to your sourdough bread recipes adds extra sourness. You can also add more "pucker" to your margaritas a little by mixing citric acid with salt before coating the rims of your glasses.

According to Nature's Flavors, keeping a jar of citric acid in your kitchen preserves guacamole's lovely green hue. A teaspoon of it keeps a large bowl of the delicious dip from turning brown. Similarly, a light sprinkle of citric acid can keep cut fruits such as apples or bananas from turning brown.

With so many uses, it's no wonder citric acid is Ron Ben-Israel's favorite secret ingredient.