Vinegar is Ancient, Complex, and Flavorful
Sources: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee; The Vinegar Institute
What is vinegar?
Harold McGee calls it "alcohol's fate, the natural sequel to an alcoholic fermentation." In other words, an original material that contains sugar -- e.g., grapes, apples, malt, or rice -- is oxidized so that first alcohol is formed. Then the liquid is further fermented with harmless bacteria that use oxygen to extract energy from the alcohol, converting it into acetic acid, the key ingredient in vinegar. The product we know as vinegar usually contains 4 to 7% acetic acid; the rest of vinegar is mostly water. As a fermented product, some vinegars may contain natural probiotics which may have health benefits.
What does the word vinegar mean?
The word comes from the French, vin aigre, which means sour wine.
What kinds of vinegar are used in cooking?
There are scores of different kinds of vinegars used in cooking around the world. Some of the more popular ones are:
- Red wine vinegar
- White wine vinegar
- Champagne vinegar
- Sherry vinegar
- Cider vinegar
- Rice vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
- White vinegar
- Fruit vinegars like apple cider vinegar or ones made with passion fruit
- Plus other lesser-known vinegars e.g., malt, honey, raisin, cane, or date.
Some say that all cooking vinegars taste the same. Is this true?
Absolutely not. Each vinegar has a taste and character that is derived from its original source material. Choose your vinegar depending upon how it will be used. For example:
- Malt -- popular with fish and chips and also used in pickling
- Balsamic -- boil some down to a syrupy glaze to accent fresh figs (please don't do this with more precious aged balsamic) or sprinkle a few drops of better-quality balsamic on fresh strawberries
- Red wine -- perfect in barbeque sauces or in a mustard vinaigrette that will dress mixed winter greens
- Champagne -- for a vinaigrette that will include crumbled cheese or when making a warm French potato salad
- White wine -- good for raw salsas, marinades, and to add a tang to sauces
- Cider -- to deglaze a pan after sautéing pork chops that will be served with a side of sliced, cooked apples or in a complex dish like sauerbraten
- Rice -- sprinkle a few drops over finely sliced scallions and toss with brown rice or add to a teriyaki glaze
- Fruit vinegars -- for salad dressings, barbecue sauces, marinades
- White -- best for pickling and also household cleaning; I also use white vinegar to pickle fresh cucumber slices (popular in Scandinavian cuisine).
What kind of vinegar should I keep on hand in my kitchen?
It depends on what and how you cook. If you often make vinaigrette dressings for salads, it's nice to have a choice of red wine, Champagne, sherry and balsamic vinegars. If you cook Asian cuisines, you should have rice wine vinegar, both seasoned and unseasoned. The only way to know which to buy is by trying different kinds of vinegars to see what you like. My every day vinegar is usually a French or Italian red wine vinegar but I also always have sherry vinegar (I like it in Roquefort dressing), Champagne vinegar (for making mayonnaise), rice wine vinegar, tomato vinegar for marinades, and two qualities of balsamic -- a less expensive one that I can cook with and a precious 20-year-old one to drizzle. I also especially love Lambrusco red wine vinegar, sourced from Olive Oil Jones, for my everyday salad vinaigrette.
What's the difference between red and white wine vinegar besides the color?
Vinegar takes on the color of the wine from which it was made. Beyond the color, the flavor will also vary depending upon the character of the wine. Balsamic and sherry vinegars are also made from wines.
Can I use white vinegar in cooking?
White vinegar has more acetic acid because it's made by fermenting pure alcohol. It's not aged and there's nothing savory or flavorful about it so it shouldn't be your first (or second, or third) choice to use in cooking or vinaigrettes. However, because of its higher level of acetic acid, it's the best choice for pickling. In commercial food production, it's also used to make salad dressings and mustard. I also use it to turn scalded whole milk into ricotta cheese.
White vinegar is also useful as a cleaning agent, including washing windows or freshening a garbage disposal.
Does a higher price mean the vinegar is a better choice?
It depends what you are buying the vinegar for. When vinegar costs more, the higher price is due to the quality of the source material, the age of the vinegar, or both. This is most evident with balsamic vinegars, some of which are aged for more than 20 years.
What is balsamic vinegar and why do some cost so much?
Balsamic vinegar is made from the must (concentrated juice) of white, sugary Trebbiano grapes. The best balsamic comes from Modena, a city in central Italy. The process for making it is not unlike that used in making Cognac and Armagnac: the vinegar is aged for several years (most 3 to 12 years, some up to 100 years) in a successive series of wood barrels.
The result is a dark, slightly sweet, and complex liquid that is costly due to the refined and lengthy process needed to produce it. Inexpensive "balsamic" is sold in our markets but this is often wine vinegar to which caramelized sugar has been added to mimic the taste of true, aged balsamic.
Does vinegar have to be refrigerated?
No. The fermentation process used to make vinegar (first to make the alcohol and then to produce the acetic acid) makes it resistant to spoilage. Because of its acid, vinegar is self-preserving and has an almost unlimited shelf life.
Sometimes a mold-like growth appears inside a bottle of opened vinegar. Does this mean the vinegar has gone bad?
The growth is called a "mother" and it's cellulose that naturally occurs in vinegar, produced by those harmless -- in fact, very healthy -- probiotics mentioned earlier. It doesn't mean the vinegar is spoiled or in any way harmed. Vinegar producers usually pasteurize the product to prevent a mother from occurring, but should one develop in one of your bottles, simply pour the vinegar through a filter (a fine mesh sieve or coffee filter would work), discard the "mother," and then enjoy the vinegar.
What are flavored vinegars?
Many cuisines use flavored vinegars. For example, in Cantonese cuisine, rice wine vinegar is flavored with ginger. In the Philippines, vinegar can be spicy from the addition of chili peppers. Mediterranean cooking can use vinegars flavored with herbs or garlic. And recently, fruit-flavored vinegars, infused with fruits like figs or raspberries, have become popular to use in salad dressings.
You can flavor your own by adding a favorite ingredient, such as peeled whole cloves of garlic, or sprigs of fresh thyme or tarragon, or a small amount of whole, dried red peppers, to a bottle of good quality red or white wine vinegar and let it sit for a few days or weeks, letting the added flavor combine with the vinegar.
Does vinegar have any nutrition or calories?
It contains no fat or calories but it does have riboflavin and vitamin B-1 plus trace amounts of mineral salts. However, if flavorings are added to vinegar, such as sugar to inexpensive balsamic or fruit to wine vinegars, these may have calories so check the labels.