Vinegar is one of the great kitchen basics. It’s also one of the oldest. Archaeologists have found traces of it in Egyptian urns over 5000 years old. Vinegar is produced when alcoholic beverages like wines and ciders come into contact with air, which ferments their alcohol into acetic acid to become vinegar. Vinegar is a great preservative in all its forms and is used to pickle and preserve various foods, important in the days before refrigeration. It’s also used in cooking to enhance soups and stews, as well as to make sauces and salad dressings.
Why are there so many kinds of vinegar? It’s not surprising when you think about it. Since every country in the world produces alcohol from what they have available to them, be it hops, apples, grapes or rice, these alcoholic drinks will all eventually turn into vinegar in the air. All these vinegars are acidic as you’d expect, but all carry with them subtle characteristics of the drinks they started out from. Vinegars aren’t generally expensive and their different flavors can bring a lot of variety to your cooking. Here are some of my pantry standbys:
Cider Vinegar is mild and slightly sweet tasting as far as vinegars go. Whether you buy it filtered or cloudy, it is the great kitchen all-rounder, for salad dressings, in baking where an acid is needed as a rising agent, pickling you name it, it does it, including as a substitute for white wine vinegar. There are a lot of health claims made about cider vinegar, but sadly none so far that are supported by research.
Wine Vinegars come in many flavors and colors. As with wines, cheapest isn’t always best. The better the quality of wine, the better the flavor of the vinegar.
- White wine vinegar is sharp and light with a flavor that makes me think of summer salads and mustard vinaigrettes. It is also my preferred medium to make flavored vinegars, and for pickling. A little white wine vinegar added at the end of cooking will lift the flavor of soups and stews, and like cider vinegar its mild flavor makes it useful in baking too. It can substitute for subtler vinegars like Champagne vinegar.
- Red Wine vinegar is ess acidic than white wine vinegars and tastes more robust. I love it for marinades or to finish heavier stews. It makes great vinaigrette salad dressings too, particularly in combo with shallots and red onion, perfect for heartier wintry salads made with roasted veggies or grains.
- Sherry vinegar has a sharp oaky taste. Like red wine, I love it for dressings that use shallots and onions, which are especially good for raw bar fare like clams and oysters. It makes plain basic vinaigrette pretty delicious too.
Balsamic vinegar although made from wine deserves its own section. Sweet and mellow tasting it is not technically wine vinegar in the usual sense, as it is traditionally made from the must or lees of wine that have been cooked down until caramelized to give it its rich dark brown color.
- Aged Balsamic ‘tradizionale’ D.O.C. is the best and most delicious balsamic vinegar. Made from only white Trebbiano grapes, it is aged for 6-8 years in casks of different woods to add to its flavor. It can be pretty expensive in fact in olden times it was a rare luxury item.
- Balsamic vinegar ‘di Modena’ is its popular, cheaper cousin and what we see in most stores. It is a blend of concentrated grape juices and strong vinegars, and does the job. It is great for marinating and cooking meats and meaty textured foods like portabella mushrooms. It makes a great dressing for beetroot salads.
- Saba: For something special, try Saba. It is the sweet first stage of the traditional vinegar. It makes wonderful sauces and is delicious with fruits like strawberries.
Rice vinegar like wine vinegar comes in different colors, depending on the rice it’s made from. All are mild tasting and are often sweetened or flavored. The most common are Black and white. White vinegar is used extensively in Japanese cuisine, often sweetened and mixed with glutinous rice for sushi. Either White wine or sherry vinegar be used instead. Black vinegar most common in China, and is made from black glutinous rice mixed with other grains, such as sorghum, and sometimes sweetened too. Balsamic can be a decent substitute.
Flavored vinegars are easily made at home. Vinegar is a preservative, so you can add the herbs and spices of your choice to a bottle, cover with a light vinegar like white wine vinegar or filtered cider vinegar and wait. In a week it will have taken on the flavor, and/or spiciness of whatever you put in there. Fresh tarragon and thyme are really good. And if you like spicy, for a fabulously hot vinegar to liven up your dressings, soups and stews, prick a couple of Habanero peppers several times with a toothpick and leave them covered in vinegar for a week. So good!
A quick note about the Mother of Vinegar: it is the cloudy mass that naturally forms in vinegar that’s been exposed to air. Vinegar with ‘Mother’ in it has not gone bad it just looks a bit off-putting. If you want to make vinegar at home, adding this ‘Mother’ to wine or cider will speed its transformation into vinegar.