We all love some zing in our food, right?! Vinegar - and its variations - is perhaps the most common souring ingredient that we use in our cooking. For the most part, I love using natural souring ingredients instead of vinegar. So what are those? Read on to find out more about the 7 natural substitutes for vinegar that I use in my cooking.
My cooking style is simple, tasty and healthy (ish) - in that order. For me, taste does come before health. The food that we consume should be healthy, no doubt. However, food that cannot pass the test of our tongue cannot go further in our system and do its magic, is what I believe.
Vinegar, a dilute solution of acetic acid, is an easy and handy way to add that instant sour hit to a salad or soup. There are also natural ingredients that help bring that sour taste to a dish. A splash of lime juice, a couple of tomatoes, or a spoonful of tamarind extract not only elevates the dish to another level but also add their own, unique flavor to the dish.
The 7 natural substitutes for vinegar that I use in cooking
- Limes / Lemons
- Curd /Yogurt
- Amla (Indian Gooseberry)
- Raw Mango Powder (Amchur)
Lime / Lemons
Although many times both limes and lemons are considered to be the same and the words used interchangeably, did you know that limes and lemons are quite different from each other in their tartness?!
Difference between limes and lemons
Limes are more tart than lemons.
When I think of lime, I think of lime pickle! It is something I grew up on. As a little girl, I remember helping my mum dry salted wedges of lime in the winter sun and when dried, mixing them with oil and spices to make an absolutely delicious and spicy lime pickle.
If you have eaten North Indian food at any restaurant or roadside eatery in India, you will almost always have been given a few lime wedges to squeeze over your dal, paneer tikka, or fish fry!
High on Vitamins C and A, I love to use lime juice to zing up my dal and chutneys.
So when do I use lemons? Good question! I use lemons mostly to make nimbu paani (Indian version of lemonade). I also use lemons as a substitute for limes. If a recipe calls for the juice of a lime and I use lemon juice instead, I increase its quantity as lemon juice is less tangy than lime juice.
Buying and storing limes and lemons: I look for ones that are plump and feel heavy to the hand. This indicates that they will contain enough juice for the buck! I store them in the refrigerator for the best flavor and long life.
Cooking with limes/lemons: Juice of lime should be added to your dish at the end of the cooking process i.e. after taking the dish off the heat otherwise it can become bitter and ruin the taste of the dish 😟
Take the limes/lemons out from the fridge about 10 minutes before using them.
Mum's tip: Before cutting the lime or lemon, gently massage it with your palms for a few seconds. This will make the fruit pliable and easy to squeeze.
What to use instead of lime/lemon?
Amla or Indian gooseberry (more about it later) is a good substitute for limes or lemons.
Amchur (dried raw mango powder) is also a good substitute for lime.
Recipes with Lime / Lemons
This one does not need an introduction! There is hardly a kitchen in the world that does not use tomatoes! I love the ‘umami’ flavor of cooked tomatoes and is my favorite of all substitutes for vinegar.
Buying and storing tomatoes: When buying tomatoes, I look for ones that are evenly red and still firm.
💡 I buy tomatoes on the vine without removing the stalks. The vine keeps them nourished and fresh for a lot longer!
Note: Refrigerating tomatoes reduces their flavor. Store them in an open basket at room temperature.
Recipes with tomatoes
Substitute for tomatoes: If you, like many others, do not eat tomatoes, then you could try using these instead:
sour plums have a similar texture to tomatoes when cooked.
grilled bell peppers(capsicum) - had read in an article sometime back (I do not remember where I read it, though!).
carrot puree with some lemon juice (I have not tried this). If you have tried this substitute please let me know what you think of it.
pomegranate seeds - in order to get a soft, squishy texture, cook the pomegranate seeds in little water till soft.
My childhood food memories are incomplete without the flavor of tamarind: be it the tangy-spicy pulihora (tamarind rice) or the sweet and sour tamarind chutney served with street foods such as chaat and pakoras, tamarind is in my blood 😆
What is Tamarind?
Tamarind is a seed pod, filled with seeds and with fibrous pulp around them, that grows on trees. The word tamarind is derived from the Arabic word tamar hind which means "Indian Date". The dark brown pulpy flesh of the fruit has a sweet-tangy, date-like taste. Tamarind is a widely used souring agent in Indian cooking as well as in South East Asian and Latin American cuisines.
In what forms can you find tamarind?
Unripe fresh fruit: Is super sour! In my home state of Andhra Pradesh, the unripe fruit is used to make stock for curries, stews, and gravies. The fruit is quite hard and tough to handle and is therefore boiled in water to make it soft and then the pulp is separated from the seeds and stringy parts.
Ripened fruit or pulp: I have seen tamarind in many Indian grocers in the form of whole pods. It however more commonly sold in blocks - seeds and fiber removed. The tamarind sold in blocks is also referred to as pulp.
Paste or concentrate: These terms are used interchangeably. Tamarind paste or concentrate is the cooked down, thick and smooth version of tamarind fruit that is sold in jars/tubs.
Extract: Tamarind extract is made by soaking the ripened tamarind pulp (or whole deseeded fruit) in water.
Tamarind water: This is the diluted version of tamarind extract.
How to make Tamarind Extract?
Watch this video of how to make tamarind extract at home.
Or here is the quick recipe for making tamarind extract:
Soak 50g of deseeded tamarind in 200 ml of hot water for 10 minutes. Squeeze the fruit well with your fingers. You will get an extract that is thick and pulpy. Scoop the pulp and fibers out with your fingers or strain through a sieve. Store in a glass jar, in the fridge.
See my detailed recipe with pictures on making tamarind extract at home.
Recipes with tamarind
I use it mainly in South Indian in stews, curries, chutneys, and relishes. The only time I use tamarind in North Indian cooking is as a garnish for street foods such as chaat, pani puris, and bhel puri.
Substitute for Tamarind: Here are a few ways to replace tamarind in your cooking:
Kokum is a fruit related to mangosteen and is native to India. It is a popular ingredient in some regions of India not only for its culinary uses but for its medicinal properties as well. The fruit is dried and the outer layer is used as a souring agent.
Mix equal quantities of lime juice with light brown sugar. It certainly will not give the same fruity tanginess that tamarind can bring to a dish, but it will do!
Curd / Yogurt
Curd is ubiquitous in Indian cuisine. In most parts of India, it is a mandatory part of a meal because the good bacteria in it aids digestion.
The most unlikely of substitutes for vinegar, I use curd as one of the natural substitutes to vinegar in cooking, mainly in gravies and sauces, to add tartness to a dish. A significant source of calcium, the curd is also beneficial for boosting the immune system.
Depending on the dish, I use fresh curd (i.e. as soon as it sets) or allow it to ferment until it reaches the desired level of tartness.
In most Indian homes, setting curd is a daily activity and is most commonly made with full-fat cow or buffalo milk.
How to set curd at home:
- Bring 4 cups (1 liter) of milk to boil.
- Pour it into the container in which you want to set the curd. Set aside to cool. It is essential to get the milk to cool down to the right temperature - for the bacteria to thrive and multiply! The best way to check this is to dip your little finger in the milk. If you can hold your finger there for about 30 seconds, that is the right temperature! If you prefer to use a thermometer instead, it should register 108 -113 F (43-45 C).
- Add about 2 tablespoons of starter yogurt - plain, unflavoured yogurt - that you have saved from your previous batch or bought from a shop, stir and cover the container. Place this container in a warm spot. During the summer months, when the temperature outside is 75 F (25 C) or warmer, the kitchen countertop is good enough for the curd to set. However, when the temperature outside is cooler than that, a boiler room or an oven with a pilot light on is ideal. Let it sit for 7-8 hours (or overnight).
- To check if the curd is set, open the lid and shake the container gently to see if the curd is firm. If yes, then put it in the fridge. If not, put it back in that same warm spot for a few more hours till it sets firm.
Cooking with curd can be tricky. Over the years, I have learned some tricks that work! For instance, when cooking with it I whisk it well and almost always add a binding ingredient such as rice flour or chickpea flour to it, turn the heat to its lowest, and then add the curd to the dish. Rather than rapid boil, I will let the curd come to boil on a gentle heat and then let it simmer. This prevents the curd from curdling!
Recipes with curd/yogurt
Substitute for curd: The most popular substitute for curd is sour cream.
If you are vegan, then try using one of the vegan yogurts that are available in supermarkets. Vegan yogurts may not have the same level of tartness as cow (or buffalo) milk yogurt. I suggest adding a dash of lime (or lemon) juice to your vegan yogurt to make it tart.
An Ayurvedic substitute for curd/yogurt is to grind some overnight soaked and peeled almonds with ¼ measure (in proportion to the quantity of almonds used) of chopped Indian gooseberry (amla) to a smooth paste. Use this paste in place of curd.
You may have noticed that I am using the words curd and yogurt interchangeably. I am aware that yogurt is not the same thing as curd, however, since many of us do not make curd at home, yogurt is a good substitute for curd.
Amla (Indian gooseberry)
Pronounced "am. luh", amla literally means “sour” (in Sanskrit).
Ayurveda holds this ingredient in high regard and gives it the status of a superfood. Amla has many health benefits - it is high in vitamin C, boosts the immune system, helps absorb iron from the gut, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
As a child, when I would feel under the weather, my grandfather, an Ayurvedic practitioner, would ask me to eat some hot, soft-cooked rice with ghee and chutney made of amla.
These days amla is available in the form of juice, tonic, candies, dried, powdered, and even as capsules! I, however, prefer to use fresh fruit.
Buying and storing amla: When buying fresh, look for plump, glossy ones that are evenly light green. Ideally, they should not have any black/dark brown spots on them. However, since it is nearly impossible to get ones without spots (unless you get them plucked from the tree and consume them within 36 hours of being plucked!) I look for the ones with the least number of spots on them. You will find fresh or frozen gooseberries in most Indian grocers.
Store amla in the refrigerator and they will stay fresh for about 3- 4 days. If you have bought a large quantity, I suggest that you freeze them - discard the stone and cut them into pieces.
Cooking with Amla: With amla, a little goes a long way! As it is intensely sour, use it in small quantities, to begin with.
Recipes with amla
Substitute for amla: here are a few other ingredients that you can use in its place:
Regular gooseberries - the ones that are bright green in color with a veined effect.
Lime or lemon
Amchur (dried mango powder)
Dried pomegranate seeds are also known as anardana powder
Green (cooking) apples such as Bramley or Granny Smith
Unripe (green) mango
In India, mango is much loved and revered as the king of fruits! Consumed equally in its unripe and ripe forms, mango is rich in Vitamins A and C, and Magnesium, mangoes are said to prevent dehydration.
Aamras, a refreshing drink made with green mangoes, is an extremely popular drink in the Northern parts of India during the summer months when the sun is scorching and the temperature can reach up to 120 F (50 C) in some parts! ☀️
Cooking with mangoes: The flavor of unripe mango reminds me of summer and they range from being mildly tangy to tongue-tingling sour!
When cooking with mangoes, peel the skin, cut the fleshy part into small cubes and discard the seed.
Have you ever tried having raw mango wedges dipped in a mixture of salt and red chilli powder! Yum!! 😋
Preserving mangoes: Since unripe mangoes are seasonal, in order to enjoy their goodness throughout the year, I preserve them in different forms.
Pickling is the most common way to preserve unripe mango.
Freezing: Peel and cut them into cubes and freeze them in freezer-safe bags.
Another popular way to preserve them is to make Amchur. The literal translation of “amchur” is mango powder. Unripe mangoes are peeled, sliced, and dried in the sun. These sun-dried slices are ground to a fine powder. Amchur should be stored in glass/ceramic jars and stays good for months.
Substitute for raw mango: Use lime juice instead.
You can also use Amla in the place of raw mango.
Green Apple, though not as tart as mango, is also a good substitute,
Pomegranate is truly a gem of a fruit! Its ruby red seeds and sweet-tart juice add such a sparkle to dishes! Thought to have originated in Persia, pomegranates feature in many Indian dishes, where the fruit adds a distinctive flavor to gravies, chutneys, and even drinks.
According to Ayurveda, pomegranates are among the healthiest fruits of all! They have anti-inflammatory properties and contain a range of nutrients that are unrivaled by other fruits. The jewel-like seeds, known as arils, are high in fiber, Vitamins C and K, folate, and potassium.
Buying pomegranates: The best pomegranates are available during the months of July through December. When I buy pomegranates, I look for ones that feel tight and heavy - indicating to me that they are fresh and full of juicy seeds. The leathery skin should be shiny and without any cracks or spots on them.
Release the seeds of a pomegranate: Getting the seeds out of the tough skin can be quite tricky. To be able to release the seeds without having the deep red juicy squirt out on your clothes and kitchen counter is nothing short of a skill!
Score the pomegranate, around its perimeter, with a sharp knife. With your hands, pry open the fruit in half. Flip it over, seeds side down, and bash it with the back of a spoon or a small chopping board to release the seeds. Discard the white membrane and pith.
Storing pomegranate seeds: Although the fruit itself can stay unspoiled for weeks, once the seeds have been separated from the fruit, they will last only a few days in the refrigerator. You can, however, pack them tightly and freeze them for up to three months.
A common way of preserving the seeds is to sun dry them and grind them to a fine powder (anardana powder). This not only intensifies the flavor but also preserves them for months without having to freeze them.
Substitute for pomegranate seeds
Dried cranberries work well in recipes that call for pomegranate seeds.
Dried cherries will also work well (though I have not tried them).
Red Currants also work well.
Frequently Asked Questions
Lime or lemons are a good substitute for white vinegar. Amla juice is also a good replacement.
Amchur (dried mango powder) and anardana powder (dried pomegranate seeds powder) are flavorful substitutes for vinegar in fried rice. You can also use lime or lemons.
Lime or lemon juice is a perfect and natural substitute for vinegar in pickling.
When you make dishes using any of these natural substitutes for vinegar, please take a moment to leave a comment and /or a rating below. This will make me super happy and motivate me to create more good content for you! xx Padma