As a chef, people often ask me about essential seasonings they should keep in their kitchen. Among favored herbs, spices & oils in my cabinet, I also recommend that home cooks procure a tasty variety of vinegars. Revered by the ancients for its curative and culinary attributes, vinegar is versatile on its own or as a tart ingredient for innumerable recipes. Let’s discuss some of the basics of vinegar and how it can help you in the kitchen.
The discovery of vinegar was a natural step after humans learned to ferment grapes for wine. This culinary accident evolved into a treasured seasoning that was recorded as early as the Ancient Sumerians. Early cooks found that this pleasantly tart liquid could also preserve food and enhance its taste, so vinegar quickly became a staple around the Ancient world to the present. Herb workers and ancient physicians touted vinegar for its medicinal properties. Modern science has verified some of the health benefits of vinegar.
How Is Vinegar Made?
Vinegar is produced when wine (or another sweet, fermented juice) is fermented a second time. The result is a tangy, slightly acidic juice with concentrated flavor. Although the taste of vinegar will weaken over time, it will last indefinitely. This self-preservation makes vinegar the ideal base for preserving or “pickling” food. The vinegar lends its flavor nuances to the preserved food and keeps it fresh for extended periods.
How Many Varieties of Vinegar Are There?
Although it is possible to create a vinegar from virtually any fermented liquid, here are some time-honored varieties I keep that are featured in cuisines from around the world:
- Apple Cider Vinegar: This fresh, tangy vinegar infuses the subtle taste of apples in marinades and other dishes. This is the vinegar that is referred to in so many publications about its supposed health benefit.
- Distilled White Vinegar: Found on kitchen shelves of most good cooks, this classic vinegar is made from fermented and distilled alcohol. It is essential for pickling and for making savory condiments and salad dressings. It is also prized for being an organic cleaner that cuts grease and removes stubborn hard water stains.
- Malted Vinegar: Could you imagine an authentic dish of crunchy English-style fish & chips without malted vinegar? After barley is brewed into beer, it is aged further into a hearty vinegar with mellow, sweet & malty notes that pair perfectly with seafood or in marinades and sweet pickles.
- White Wine Vinegar: If you want a subtle vinegar for marinades, pickling or a light vinaigrette, white vinegar is an excellent choice. Made from second-fermented white wine, it has lighter flavor nuances than red wine vinegar.
- Champagne vinegar: Created from champagne, this is the most delicate vinegar you can choose. Because of its gentle flavor, it is best used for vinaigrettes or homemade condiments.
- Red Wine Vinegar: Grill enthusiasts should always keep a bottle of quality red wine vinegar on hand. It is processed from red wine and pairs well with the smoky, complex flavor of grilled beef and pork marinades. It is also the perfect vinegar for preparing Southern-style coleslaw.
- Sherry Vinegar: Here is another wine-based vinegar that brings vibrant flavors to vinaigrettes and sauces.
- Rice Vinegar: For your best Asian-inspired dishes, you will need this vinegar that is made from fermented rice wine. It has a light tang that goes well with Asian-style dipping sauces, dressings and marinades. Red vinegar is a variety of rice vinegar that is aged with an edible red mold. Its unique flavor is often paired with Chinese noodles or dumplings. Black vinegar (also called Chinese Black Vinegar) is made from glutinous rice and has a distinct, bold flavor that is poplar in many Asian-style dipping sauces and marinades.
- Balsamic Vinegar: Among my usual vinegar collection, I keep a couple bottles of quality balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar gets its name from balsa, which is a fragrant “balm” extracted from trees or flowers. Unlike regular vinegars, balsamic vinegar is made from the concentrated juice of Italian Trebbiano grapes. Like wine, it is aged in oak barrels for several years to develop inimitable sweet, woodsy flavors that are prized by global cooks. Vintage balsamic vinegar can carry a hefty price tag; however, you can find quality brands that will fit most budgets. Use balsamic vinegar to highlight a savory sauce or drizzle it on a sweet dish for a hint of vanilla-like smokiness.
- Infused Vinegars: It is easy to create uniquely-flavored vinegars by infusing them with fruit or herbs & spices. I make infused vinegars for tasty vinaigrettes, marinades or as thoughtful gifts to my foodie family & friends.
Store your vinegars in airtight bottles in your spice cabinet or in the pantry (no need for refrigeration.) Experiment with different varieties to add flavor & tang to your favorite recipes. Check out some of my quick & easy recipes for creating homemade infused vinegars. They can take some of your favorite dishes to a new level of flavor!
Here are a few of my favorite infused vinegars - Feel free to swap out the herbs & spices - the pairings and flavor combinations are nearly endless
And, here are a few of my favorite recipes, that could use a pop of flavor from your favorite infused vinegar - again feel free to experiment and find a flavor combination that works for you