What is Vinegar?

Vinegar often gets a bad rap. The lack of respect given to vinegar by most consumers is no doubt due to the bottle of white distilled vinegar that many of us grew up with, one that was taken out once a year and used to wash the windows. One sip from these notorious bottles, usually done on a dare, would be enough to send one into a paroxysm of fits and perpetuate the idea that vinegar was an abhorrent thing to be avoided at all costs.

Fortunately, those in the know have awakened to the sublime effects good vinegar can have on food, as well as to the huge variety that is now available in specialty shops and increasingly in supermarkets across Canada and the United States.

Still, it seems consumers just don’t know what to do with the stuff. With a few exceptions, even most books that have been written about vinegar seem to concentrate more on its myriad household uses — from treating sunburn to keeping fleas at bay for Fido — than on its culinary role. Even if it is only used to dress a salad, there are enough types of vinegar to provide a panoply of flavours for even the most demanding gourmet.

Here then is a look at the heretofore best-kept secret in the kitchen, a powerhouse of flavour and variety, and perhaps the best friend olive oil ever had. In general, wine vinegars are required to have at least 6 percent acetic acid, and other vinegars range between 4-6 percent acetic acid. Slight variations in acidity levels will be only barely perceptible on the palate; they need be of concern only when preparing pickles or other preserves. Wine, malt, and cider vinegar are strong but distilled and spirit vinegars are even stronger. While any vinegar can be distilled, malt vinegar is most often used for this process. The distillation concentrates the acetic acid, increasing the level above 6 percent.

Types of Vinegar

The vinegar made in any given country tends to reflect the produce. Wine-making countries, such as France, Italy, and Spain, produce wine vinegars. Where apples are the main crop, as in parts of North America, cider vinegar represents the bulk of production. Beer-brewing countries, such as Britain, produce malt vinegar. In the Far East, where wine is made from rice, a mild variety of rice wine vinegar containing 2-4 percent acetic acid is most widely used.

Wine Vinegar

Arguably, those vinegars made from wine are the greatest of all. In fact, our word vinegar comes from the French vinaigre (literally “sour wine”) derived from the Latin vinum acer, which means the same thing. Like the wines they are made from, wine vinegars offer enormous range and versatility.

Vinegar is the necessary, and quite natural outcome of the life of grape juice (or any other fermentable liquid for that matter). Left to its own devices — and plenty of fresh air, grape or other fruit juice will naturally ferment. In other words, naturally occurring microflora and yeasts will begin to devour the sugars in the liquid and convert them into alcohol. If further left alone, acetic bacteria will invade and consume the alcohol, and in turn, change the alcohol into acid, or vinegar.

Although the whole process will happen naturally, whether one intends for it to happen or not, today the mechanics of making commercial vinegar are highly controlled, or as controlled as one can be over Mother Nature. The method by which virtually all fine wine-based vinegar is made is called the Orleans process, named for the French city on the banks of the Loire River where the method was developed. Essentially, the process involves using relatively small barrels in which the vinegar develops, and unlike wine, leaving the barrel partially unfilled to allow for the circulation of air and wild yeasts.

A layer of gelatinous-looking material like a sleeping jellyfish will inevitably form on the surface. Called the “mother,” it is really just a conglomeration of the used-up Acetobacters and yeasts, a mass that will sometimes settle on the bottom and sometimes float on the surface. Mother will often develop in bottles of vinegar as well, especially those that have not been pasteurised, usually causing customers to think their vinegar has gone bad. In effect, the vinegar has already gone bad by virtue of becoming vinegar and nothing more can happen to it. The mother can take over if left alone, however, and it’s best to remove and discard it or save it to start your own batch of vinegar.

Varietal vinegars

These are vinegars that are made from a specific grape variety, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Merlot to name the most well known. Spain has really led the way in this regard, at least in the practice of labelling the vinegar as such, followed closely by California vinegar makers. People like B.R. Cohn Olive Oil Co. and Kimberley Wine Vinegar Works are making excellent varietal vinegars and winning awards and accolades from chefs in the process.

Sherry Vinegar

Sherry vinegar, with its deep caramel colour and well-rounded mellow flavour, is matured in wooden casks similar to those in which the sherry is made and can be expensive.

Balsamic Vinegar

A wine vinegar that is gaining recognition in cuisines around the world is aceto balsa mico, or balsamic vinegar. Made in Modena in northern Italy, it is named for the Italian word for “balm” referring to the smooth, mellow character of this unique vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is made from unfermented grape juice that is aged in wooden casks. The quality of the finished product depends a great deal on the type of wood used and the skill of the vinegar maker. The finest vinegars are aged for a minimum of ten years; the maximum aging time can extend for many decades.

Balsamic vinegar production demands an artistry equal to the production of a great wine. In Modena, fine aged balsamic vinegar may be served as an after-dinner drink. Traditionally made balsamic vinegar can be costly, although an industrially made version does exist and is an acceptable substitute for the traditional kind in most recipes.

Cane Vinegar

Cane vinegars are made from fermented cane sap, which incidentally is the first step toward making rum. They lean toward the sweet as one would expect, but not so sweet as to be used in all sorts of savory applications.

Cider Vinegar

Apple pulp or cider can be made into cider vinegar following the same method used to produce wine vinegar. There are recipes that call specifically for cider vinegar, but it has a strong, sharp flavor and so should only be used where it complements the other ingredients. Commercial cider vinegars, which are filtered, are a pale brown color. Home-produced versions can become cloudy, but this does not affect their taste or indicate an inferior quality. The flavor is not smooth and refined enough for most salad dressings, but it can be used successfully in fruit pickles.

Malt Vinegar

Made from malted barley, this type is most often used as a pickling vinegar for onions and other vegetables. Malt vinegar has too strong a flavour for use in salad dressings but is the perfect condiment for fish and chips. Powerful distilled malt vinegar, which is colourless, is for pickling watery vegetables, such as cucumber, which is likely to dilute the vinegar. It is also used in the manufacture of sauces and chutneys and is sometimes coloured with caramel to produce brown malt vinegar.

Spirit Vinegar

The strongest of all vinegars, this is used almost exclusively for pickling. It differs from distilled vinegar in that it contains a small quantity of alcohol.

Rice Vinegar

Most common in the cuisines of Asia, this type is made from soured and fermented rice wines. Japanese rice vinegars are mellow and mild, while vinegar from China is sharp and sometimes slightly sour. Depending on the rice used, Chinese vinegars are red or white in colour. Like vinegars in the West, rice vinegar is often flavoured. Soy sauce and mirin, or sweet rice wine, can be added, along with spices and flavourings such as ginger root, dried bonito flakes, chillies, sesame seeds, onions, horseradish, and mustard. There is also a black Chinese vinegar, which is obtained from wheat, sorghum, and millet instead of rice.

Flavoured Vinegars

These are not a modern invention. All sorts of flavourings have been added to vinegar since antiquity, including fruits and berries, garlic, herbs and spices, and honey. Today, the choices are seemingly endless, limited only by one’s imagination and the available raw materials. Flavoured vinegars run the gamut from gimmicks to really useful culinary ingredients for cooking and finishing foods.

Culinary Uses of Vinegar

Vinegar is an essential ingredient in the kitchen and a highly versatile flavouring. Also used as a means of preserving foods, generally fruit, vinegar is also an excellent seasoning. High-quality vinegars can be costly, so it is important that they are stored properly to ensure maximum shelf life.

Keep vinegars in a cool place away from light; they do not need to be refrigerated. Most vinegars can be kept almost indefinitely if stored correctly. Vinegar is commonly used in sauces and salad dressings — particularly where a sweet-and-sour flavour is desired and it can be used as a preservative for vegetables and fruits. It is also one of the principal ingredients in pickles and chutneys. The importance of vinegar to the flavour of the finished dish is often overlooked.

The best vinegars are made from the finest raw ingredients, and this is especially true for wine vinegars. A high-quality sherry vinegar, for example, can transform a simple green salad; an ordinary vinegar will result in an ordinary salad. Certain kinds of vinegar are used to deglaze pan juices for piquant sauces or gravies. The addition of a little vinegar can enliven many sauces, especially tomatobased ones, but remember to use a light touch.

Vinegar goes surprisingly well with soft fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries, and a dash of a mellow vinegar adds distinction to fresh fruit salad. When deciding which vinegar to use in a dish, always choose the most appropriate flavour.

Malt vinegar is made from grain and is strongly flavoured, so it is best with straightforward food such as fish and chips, cold meats, or when preparing relishes and chutneys. Cider vinegar is the best choice for deglazing pork chops accompanied by sautéed apples.

Wine vinegars are ideal for mayonnaise and all kinds of salad dressings. They are also used in many classic butter sauces, such as béarnaise, often made with white wine vinegar and served with fish. A dash of fine wine vinegar adds distinction to rich meat or game stews.

Image by Andrea Levers / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)