Got vinegar? Got sugar? You’re nearly there.
Credit: Getty / Pat_Hastings

Often the difference between a great homemade meal and just an ordinary one has to do with sauces. From salad dressing to pan sauces, dipping condiments to gravies, even dessert sauces, these anointments are the best way to bring that extra special something to any dish. Many fine dining restaurants have a chef called the saucier, whose only job is to create those touches that elevate any dish.

If you are not used to making many of these from scratch, it can feel a bit daunting. Because usually, even with great recipes to draw from, the final results come down to an ability to adjust for flavor, adding the right amount of seasoning or balancing sweet, sour, salty, and fatty. Practice makes perfect, to be sure, but having some secret weapons in your arsenal can also be a terrific help. For me, that means having an acid-enhanced, tart syrup in my fridge.

What exactly is a tart syrup?

First, let's remember that syrups are really just a liquid sugar. Many are natural, like maple syrup, agave, or honey. Some involve a granular sugar dissolved in water like cane sugar, palm sugar, or coconut sugar. By adding an acid like lemon juice, wine, or vinegar to that syrup and cooking those two elements down a bit together, you create an instant sweet and sour flavor booster that can solve myriad problems in any sauce.

How to use tart syrup in cooking

Classic sauces naturally lean into that sweet and sour flavor, like gastriques or agrodolce. Think about salad dressings like poppyseed or French. Balancing these two essential flavors can make for wonderful sauces. The acid brings brightness, but the sweetness keeps it in check so that it isn't too puckery. And both can help temper spicy heat or saltiness.

How to make tart syrup

To make your own tart syrup, you first need to decide on your pairing of sugar and acid. For a basic version that will go with almost anything, keep it simple with granulated sugar and either white wine vinegar, regular dry white wine, or vermouth. But you can get creative too. Think about pairings that make sense:

  • Honey and apple cider vinegar
  • Date syrup with sherry vinegar
  • Sorghum syrup with malt vinegar
  • Maple syrup with lemon juice 

You want a 1:1 ratio of acid to sugar for best balance. If your sugar is already in liquid form, you can add an equal amount by volume of the acid of your choice, and simmer over medium high heat until the syrup thickens a bit. Essentially you are driving off the excess water and thickening the syrup a bit to caramelize it. If you are working with a granular sugar, dissolve it in a couple tablespoons of water and cook until it boils and deepens a bit in color before adding the acid and cooking to a syrupy consistency.

It will usually take 5-8 minutes for the blend to thicken. You want the consistency of maple syrup, since it will thicken more once cooled. Once finished, cool to room temp and then store in the fridge in an airtight container nearly indefinitely. Between the sugar and acid content, it should not spoil for months. 

Add in small amounts to anything that needs a boost, from salad dressings to gravies or sauces, even stews or chilis. Use a bit at a time, tasting as you go, until you like the balance it brings.