The different types of vinegar, when to use them, and which are worth the splurge
After a fruit or grain is fermented to create alcohol, the byproduct of its second fermentation is vinegar. Just as yeast creates ethanol, ethanol creates acetic acid, and that’s what creates that lovely array of puckering goodness from the white vinegar we clean with, to the $100 balsamic kept in the glass case of Whole Foods.
The differences between vinegars are based on the original alcohol it was made from (apple cider, sherry, wine, etc.). This creates the delicious diversity among vinegars that we’re familiar with today.
From the first civilizations, vinegar has been used for medicinal, culinary, and preservation purposes.
Today, not much has changed. Vinegar is the source of pickled fruits and vegetables, an important element of salad dressings, and can be enjoyed by itself with some warm bread and sumptuous olive oil.
But don’t forget that vinegar is an acid and can be used in the same ways you use the other acids in your kitchen like citrus, salt, and alcohol.
Vinegar can enhance the flavor of a dish by adding a bit of brightness and allowing the other flavors to shine through. Acetic acid also breaks down meat fibers, making them more tender and flavorful, which makes vinegar a great tool for marinades. Instead of ethanol, vinegar can be used to deglaze a pan, and just like citric acid can “chemically cook” a protein, so can vinegar.
Distilled white vinegar is good for more than just household cleaning. The grain alcohol from which it’s derived is similar to vodka, which creates a neutral-tasting acid.
In fact, its lackluster taste is what makes it a powerful tool for cooking. Think of it as your vanilla vinegar. Use it to add a tang of acid to bring out other flavors, but without complicating the profile with other complexities.
It’s great for balancing sugars, adding to dressings, or deglazing a pan.
Red Wine Vinegar
Made from red wine, it can be both fruity and bold in flavor. Because of its robust origins, it complements heartier entrees like stews, braises, and roasts. It also works well with dense root vegetables and earthy legumes to break through their full-bodied tastes.
Use it to add a subtle complexity, or let it shine in a dressing or reduction.
True balsamic vinegar is an imported product and just like fine olive oil, can range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. Be sure to check the ingredients to make sure you’re getting the real thing. It should include the ingredient grape must- the juice of crushed grapes. Any other ingredients like “wine vinegar” or “caramel color” means it’s not the real thing.
A true balsamic can be enjoyed alone with its tart complexity, and tastes delicious when it’s drizzled on almost anything.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Vinegar made from alcoholic apple cider is another pantry staple. This vinegar has a signature sweetness that makes it the go-to choice for BBQ sauces, pork, sweet marinades, and pickles.
While store-bought apple cider vinegar can do the trick, try looking for small batch vinegars from local apple farmers. The closer you are the source, the more explosive the flavor.
The slight sweetness from the rice wine it’s derived from makes rice vinegar a subtle and light and refreshing cooking option.
Use it to season sushi rice, dress salads, make sauces, or quick-pickle vegetables like the tasty toppings on your Banh Mi sandwich.
If you’re contemplating between seasoned and unseasoned rice vinegar, the only difference is the added sugar of the seasoned variety. If you want to control the sweetness or avoid unnecessary sugars, opt for the classic unseasoned rice vinegar.