Food & Nutrition

The Skinny on Vinegar

Everything you need to know about chef's secret ingredient: vinegar.

Vinegar has been a pantry staple for millennia — and no wonder, since it brings so much flavor and satisfaction to so many dishes. This age-old product offers a powerhouse of flavor, right in your pantry. Vinegar brings out the best in everything from salads to soups, stews to braises — and even cookies and pies. 
 

What is Vinegar?
 

It’s a mild acid — and therefore, as you know, sour.

Vinegar has been around at least since humans started fermenting grapes and grains into alcohol — because vinegar results when air interacts with the ethanol in those concoctions. Naturally-occurring bacteria go to work, eating up the oxygen. Leave a bottle of wine uncorked for a few days, and you’ll soon begin to develop acetic-acid bacteria, the little microbes necessary for that sour pucker.

But while you might think vinegar is just “oxidized wine,” you can actually make it from almost any fermented drink: beer, brandy, coconut liqueur or even rice wine.

When you combine the naturally occurring acetic-acid bacteria with soluble cellulose, you end up with a transferable vinegar starter, often called “the mother.” It can be dipped from one container of wine, beer, or other fermented liquid to another, thereby making more and more vinegar from the original batch.

In other words, we make vinegar today about the same the way the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Chinese did.
 

The Many (Many) Ways to Use Vinegar
 

  • Pickling and preserving. All pickles and many condiments — mustard, ketchup, chutney — have a vinegar base. It both preserves the fruit or vegetables and brings their flavors forward.

  • Marinades and rubs. Vinegars are added to marinades not to tenderize the meat (that’s a myth) but to interact with natural sugars as they eventually sear over the heat, thereby creating a sweet-sour pairing almost unbeatable in its culinary magic.

  • Sushi. Vinegar is always in the rice, to balance the sweet taste of the fish.

  • On salads. The typical salad dressing contains way more oil than vinegar. That’s too bad. In any salad-dressing recipe, use a more flavorful vinegar and consider it the hero, the oil a mere helper. But remember this: Vinegar begins to break down the delicate cells in lettuces almost immediately. Only dress a salad right before you serve it.

  • On vegetables. Steamed or grilled, vegetables are more tasty with a little drizzle of vinegar. Leafy greens — collards, turnip greens, etc. — take particularly well to this treatment.

  • Flavor brightener. Want to bring the flavors of any soup, stew or braise to the fore? Just add a small splash of vinegar at the end of cooking. It’s what most chefs do!

  • Pastry-dough aid. Vinegar nixes the way flour’s glutens stretch and pull, thereby creating tough doughs. For crunchier cookies and better pie crusts, add 1/4 teaspoon vinegar to the mix with the other liquids.

  • Fruit enhancer. A mere drop of vinegar mixed with any fruit juice, punch or even fruity cocktail makes it taste sweeter.

  • Post-freezer fixer. No doubt about it, flavors dull in the long chill. Bring them back with a tiny bit of vinegar as you reheat leftovers, especially stews and braises.
     

And ways not to use it...

 

  • Because of the interaction with certain proteins, vinegar will curdle milk, cream and half-and-half. Never add vinegar to dishes with milk products in the mix. However, you can add vinegar to dishes that contain yogurt or crème fraîche. 
  • Always store dishes made or even spiked with vinegar in nonreactive containers — that is, those made of heat-safe glass, stainless steel, enameled iron or enameled steel. Over time, vinegar can form harmful chemical compounds in reactive containers, which include certain ceramic glazes, tin, copper and non-anodized aluminum, as well as certain dyes or finishes in some decorative glass and most pottery.

 

How to Store Vinegar
 

There’s only one rule: keep your vinegars in a cool, dark pantry, sealed up to prevent oxygen from continuing to feed on the bacteria. Never store vinegars in the fridge — the chill can dull the flavors over time.

While it can last a year or more, no vinegar will last forever. Replace bottles that have funky smells or any sediment.
 

Different Types of Vinegar
 

Since vinegar can be made from an array of fermented liquids, there are hundreds of types on the market. This list covers everything from the common to the more esoteric.

Apple cider vinegar
This heavy, sour vinegar is harsh and should be used sparingly. Pair it with oils and even lots of herbs to tone it down a bit.

Balsamic vinegar
Originally made only from the cooked must of white Trebbiano grapes, this sweet vinegar has become quite popular in the last 25 years. Non-aged, less expensive bottlings are great in all sorts of cooking: marinades and rubs, of course, but also as a lovely back taste in soups and stews (no more than a tablespoon or two in a whole batch). More expensive bottlings of balsamic vinegar — aged for years in wood casks like fine wine — are thick and syrupy; they should be used strictly as a drizzled condiment on grilled vegetables or sliced tomatoes. 

White balsamic vinegar
Basically, this is made from Trebbiano grapes (not just the must) without any aging and little fermenting. It’s sweet and light, a refreshing change in salad dressings.

Malt vinegar
Made from ale, this vinegar is popular in Great Britain. Try it on just about anything oven-fried — or skip the ketchup and use a splash on fries. 

Rice vinegar
This Asian staple made from rice wine is low in acid, a great foil to more complex tastes in stir-fries and Asian-inspired stews. It also pairs well with chilis of all sorts. One note: Seasoned rice vinegar has sugar added to the mix. Search out the plain original, no sweetener necessary. 

Red wine vinegar
Made, of course, from red wine, this pucker-inducing and hearty vinegar is best in full-flavored dishes, ones stocked with herbs, with layers of flavors. In other words, use it in dishes with which you might also drink red wine: beef, pork and vegetable stews.

White wine vinegar
Slightly sweeter than red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar offers a fresh, spring-like finish to salads and grilled vegetables. It’s particularly nice on fish. A tiny splash brings out the sweetness in berries, peaches and melons. And no more than 1/4 teaspoon adds a refreshing zip to the fillings of fruit pies, cobblers and crisps.

 

Unusual finds
 

Beer vinegar
Popular in northern Europe and made from various kinds of beer, it has a deeply malty taste, more intense than malt vinegar. It’s great on anything oven-fried — as well as a condiment drizzle on grilled chops or steaks. 

Black vinegar
This dark, viscous liquid is made from glutinous black rice, fermented into a wine and then aged into vinegar. It’s thick, stout, a little sweet and quite complex. Try it on its own over brown rice, a more interesting pop than mere butter. (Many are sweetened in some way — again, search out the plain original.)

Cane vinegar
Made from fermented sugarcane juice and popular across the southern hemisphere from the Philippines to sub-Saharan Africa, this vinegar comes in a range of colors, from cloudy-white to dark and thick. Consider the color a guide to the taste: the lighter the color, the brighter and more sour the taste; the darker, the more caramel-like and complex.

Coconut vinegar
From fermented coconut water, this Southeast Asian staple is cloudy, with a sour but yeasty kick. It’s often sprinkled onto Indian curries and Filipino rice dishes — and makes a nice condiment in most stir-fries.

Kurozu
A lighter form of black vinegar, quite popular in Japan, it’s served on its own as a health drink, a sour kick to detox the palate.

Raisin vinegar
Popular in Middle Eastern cooking, a more sour condiment than pomegranate molasses, this vinegar is nonetheless quite mild with a lovely light finish, best on steamed vegetables of all sorts. 

Red vinegar
Made from red rice yeast, it’s quite aromatic, the better bottlings with tastes reminiscent of bread. Consider it a condiment to be used in most Asian-inspired marinades and rubs.

 

Flavored vinegars


Although vinegars made by steeping fruits, berries and/or herbs in the acidic liquid are quite popular, beware of hidden sugar bombs: These vinegars are often laced with sweeteners. Look for bottlings without any shenanigans — and no artificial flavoring! 

It’s easy enough to make your own flavored vinegar: Buy a good-quality white-wine or red-wine vinegar, then pour it into a larger glass container, adding slivered garlic, fresh herbs or even whole berries. Or try chive blossoms, garlic scapes, orange peels or basil flowers. Seal the container and set the vinegar aside for at least a week to meld the flavors. Then use it in salad dressings, marinades, stir-fries or soups.

You can also make a quick infused vinegar as a dipping condiment: Soak minced garlic or ginger in rice vinegar, red vinegar or red wine vinegar in a small bowl for a couple hours. It’s great with fried tidbits, grilled asparagus spears, steamed broccoli florets or oven-baked onion rings.

RELATED: A Cook's Guide to Rice Vinegar