In almost every cuisine, vinegar is used to flavor, marinate, disinfect, or pickle food. The root of the word is from French for “sour wine.” Vinegar’s sharp acidity proves this connection. Vinegar can be made from any number of fermented fruits and grains, creating a huge variety of different flavors. Among the most popular in the United States are cider, red and white wine, balsamic, and rice vinegars.
Cider vinegar is made from fermented apples and is a good source of manganese, a critical mineral for antioxidant function. Natural medicine has long advocated cider vinegar as a disinfectant and tonic, but there is little research to support these claims.
Wine vinegars, although generally less acidic than cider vinegar, can be used interchangeably in most recipes. Balsamic vinegar’s name comes from the Latin word “balsamum,” meaning curative. It is different from other vinegars, being a reduction of cooked wine rather than fermented, and brings a natural sweetness and smoothness to dressings and salads.
Vinegar keeps indefinitely. When it is old, a cloudy mass often forms at the bottom of the bottle. This is completely natural and is called the ‘mother.’ Add it to table wine, wait a few weeks, and you will have made your own delicious vinegar.
Wine vinegars: Whether you’re buying red, white, or sherry, try to get the best quality you can afford. As with table wine, you tend to get what you pay for.
Cider vinegar: Some cider vinegars are clear, others naturally cloudy. Try both to see which you prefer.
Balsamic vinegar: As with wine vinegar, it may be worth paying a little more to get the best. Not all vinegars labeled ‘balsamic’ are the traditional forms. Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged in wood for at least 12 years. Those “younger” products are often flavored and thickened to simulate the taste and consistency that comes from this aging process.
Rice vinegar: Japanese brown rice vinegar is the lightest of this variety. Beware of “sushi vinegar,” which is rice vinegar sweetened with sugar. Unless you are making sushi there may be better options.
All vinegars can be whisked together with oil to make simple salad dressings. Wine vinegar and olive oil, whisked with a few toasted almonds, makes our classic Almond Vinaigrette Dressing. Wine vinegar can also be used to lift the taste of a dish, as in our James’s Quick Fish Dish. Use balsamic as a dressing in our Baked Beet Salad with Sunflower Seeds & Arugula.