Vinegar plays a vital role in the kitchen, but there’s so much more it can do than pickle cucumbers and serve as the base for a vinaigrette. From red and white wine vinegars to balsamic and sherry, there are so many flavorful options out there – here’s a rundown of how vinegar is made as well as some inspiration for incorporating them into your cooking.
Vinegar is made following a two-step fermentation process. The first occurs when yeasts feed on sugars in liquid (wine, juice, etc.), converting them to alcohol. The second fermentation consists of bacteria feeding on the alcohol, converting it to vinegar, which is then thinned out with water to reach varying levels of acidity (usually between 4% and 7%). Today, high-tech equipment and controlled environments speed up both fermentation processes, resulting in inexpensive vinegar that’s good for everyday use. But as you become more familiar with vinegars and their flavor qualities, it might be worth exploring those from small producers – although often more expensive, they’re typically more complex in flavor than off-the-shelf varieties from the grocery store.
Red & White Wine Vinegar
We always have red and white vinegar on hand and have found that those labeled as having been made with a specific variety of wine (ie., cabernet, chianti, chardonnay, Champagne) tend to be more complex than those labeled just “red” or “white”. These are great choices for everyday vinaigrettes or marinades – red wine vinegar is a classic base for Greek salad vinaigrette; white vinegar and honey is delicious sprinkled over ripe melon slices. And a splash of either type in soup can be “just what it needs” – we reach for it before reaching for the salt shaker.
Apple Cider Vinegar
In old-fashioned kitchens, a keg of apple cider vinegar was a staple in many homes. It’s still one of the most popular vinegars, where it can be used as a deglazing liquid for a pan sauce, added to brine to quick-pickle cucumbers, carrots or radishes, or used to tame the sweetness of baked beans or BBQ sauce. Commercial cider vinegars are often filtered, meaning they’ve been strained to remove any cloud-causing sediment, but unfiltered vinegar is equally good. Use them interchangeably.
Authentic balsamic is a splurge – this Italian vinegar made in the traditional manner takes years to make and small bottles can cost over $100. Its flavor is sweet and complex but because it’s so expensive, traditional balsamic is usually sipped as a palate-cleanser after dinner or drizzled over fresh strawberries or Parmigiano-Reggiano, not used in a vinaigrette.
That said, there’s definitely a place in your kitchen for a good-quality, reasonably-priced balsamic. While it won’t be made in the traditional manner, it’s great for marinating meat and vegetables for the grill, and just a splash can elevate a simple pan sauce for chicken.
Mild and tangy, rice vinegar is a common ingredient in Japanese kitchens: sushi rice is often blended with rice vinegar before shaping. It’s a variety that we love to have on hand for super-light vinaigrettes – try it on lettuce and grain salads. Rice vinegar is available unseasoned or seasoned, which has a touch of sugar added; there are also options that have been infused with herbs or garlic. We suggest purchasing unseasoned vinegar and adding flavorings yourself.
Sherry vinegar has origins in Spain and is a favorite of ours for salad dressings, or using to finish for dried beans, lentils or soups like the Madeira Mushroom and Leek Soup, above. Sherry vinegar is made from fermented sherry, a fortified wine from Spain, and shouldn’t be confused with sherry cooking wine – they are not the same thing. Sherry vinegar isn’t always carried in grocery stores but it’s usually easy to find in specialty food shops.
In general, all vinegars have an indefinite shelf life, especially when stored in a cool, dark cabinet. You may, over time, see sediment form in some bottles – the vinegar is very likely just fine, simply strain off any floating bits. Once you’ve experienced the flavor enhancing qualities of vinegars, you just may find yourself using them in unexpected places!