A luxurious alternative for fats and salts, vinegar is a gourmet delight.
Bold yet subtle, sweet though acidic, enhancer of Mediterranean flavors and Asian fare... here’s to vinegar, the daughter of wine. Her discovery was a worthy accident, like that of her parent, thousands of years ago. Indeed, the Latin roots of the word vinegar remind us of its noble origins: vinum acer, sour wine. Throughout history, vinegar has been our ally as a preservative, a condiment, a medicine, an antibiotic, and a cleaning agent. Yes, versatile vinegar even eases the pain of rashes and insect bites. The Sumerians were familiar with vinegar. It’s said that the Babylonians were the first to use it as a flavoring infused with herbs. Caesar’s armies drank vinegar to give them vigor and strength. Its virtues are mentioned in the Talmud and in the Bible. As recently as World War I, soldiers used vinegar to treat their wounds. It makes for safe pickles and adds zip to mustards, salad dressings, and marinades.
But not all vinegars are the same. These days, small bottles of specialty vinegars adorn the kitchens of gourmet chefs. In these vinegars, acidity—long touted as vinegar’s key component—is perfectly balanced with character, body, and taste. How does that work? On a chemical level, vinegar is the result of two consecutive fermentations.
First, yeast converts sugar to alcohol, the process of making wine. Next, in the presence of oxygen, the bacteria acetobacter converts alcohol to acetic acid. On a gourmet level, however, the quality of vinegar depends on the source of the sugar. Acetic acid is acetic acid, no matter what. Yet it expertly carries the unique flavors of the fruit, honey, or rice from which it’s made. The better the fruit and its wine, the better the vinegar.
Traditional vinegar recipes derive from the Orleans method, not surprisingly from the wine regions of France: A diluted wine mingles slowly with an introduced acetobacter “mother culture,” usually taken from a previous batch. The vinegar matures from six months to several years in a series of wooden casks that are tilted to provide maximum oxygenation. Modern techniques abandon this finicky alchemy of wood, wine, and time. They introduce high-tech, fast aeration, inject synthetic acetic acid, or distill from ethyl alcohol.
Although you may want to have a gallon of the resulting soulless stuff on hand to wash your windows with, in the kitchen you want to select your vinegars with the greatest care.
Is vinegar healthy?
“Load your pantry with a variety of vinegars,” recommends the American Dietetic Association (ADA). But wait—it may not be for reasons you’ve heard about.
“There’s no scientific evidence that apple cider vinegar can aid in weight loss,” reports Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “Claims that vinegar will relieve arthritis, get rid of headaches and lower blood pressure are probably best ignored.”
Other experts agree. “In fact, when you take too much, you risk dental enamel erosion,” says Wahida Karmally, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition at the Irving Center for Clinical Research at Columbia University in New York and a spokesperson for the ADA. But Karmally praises vinegar for its preservative strength. “On a summer picnic, tuna fish mixed with mayonnaise, which contains vinegar, lasts longer than plain tuna fish.”
Most of all, she loves what vinegar can do for a healthy heart. “Vinegar is important as a flavoring,” says Karmally. “When you’re trying to cut back on fat or salt, use a good vinegar instead. It holds flavor and carries added spices well.” For a superb salad dressing and sauce, for example, she blends dried cranberries with rice wine vinegar, a little basil, and just a drop of oil.
Cooking with vinegar
Peter Merriman, chef-owner of Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii, loves rice wine vinegar as well. “It has very low acidity,” he says. “It’s great in sweet and sour dishes. It balances tempura, an Asian deep-fried dish.”
A favorite item on Merriman’s current menu features sautéed scallops with an umeboshi (pickled plum)-infused rice wine vinegar. “The same way that lemon goes well with fish, and that a glass of sauvignon blanc balances prawns, acid in vinegar cleanses the palate from the richness of scallops,” he explains. “It’s that contrast that makes a dish so exciting.
“Vinegar can highlight other flavors,” he adds. “For example, use a red wine vinegar to enhance a red wine sauce. Just a splash of it toward the end brings out the flavors wonderfully. You don’t notice it’s acidic. Try to use vinegar flavors that are already in the sauce. Take apples and cheese: They go well together, so for a blue cheese dressing I might reach for the apple cider vinegar. Strawberries sprinkled with balsamic vinegar, which has a sweet component to it, taste unbelievably good.”
Balsamic vinegar is the ruby-rich classic condiment adored by many gourmet chefs. Velvety smooth, undeniably sweet, dark, and viscous, filled with warmth, traditional balsamic vinegar comes from Modeno in northern Italy, where artisans make a concentrated vinegar from the fermented must of white trebbiano grapes. This three-year process is only the beginning. Ten to fifty years of maturing in a series of barrels chosen for the properties of their wood transforms the liquid into the coveted aceto balsamica. It takes ten gallons of must to produce a couple of pints. Naturally, it’s expensive.
Commercial balsamics aren’t tied to geographical or technical regulations and are therefore a little cheaper. Chosen with care, they can be equally good in daily use.
Buying and storing
When it comes to buying vinegars, however, don’t skimp on costs. A little goes a long way, and the quality of the vinegar you use—in a finishing detail for a sauce, as a main element in a dressing, or plain, in and of itself, on basmati rice or fresh fruit—plays a critical role in the perfection of a dish.
Organic vinegars capture the essence of a grain or a fruit without the interference of chemicals commonly used in modern farming methods and in wine production. They are slowly becoming available in an increasingly wide variety. Spectrum Organics, for example, sells everything from distilled organic vinegar for pickling jobs to delicate Modeno balsamics.
Store your open bottles of fine vinegars in the fridge, and use within about three months. Remember, vinegar is a life product, so even the most carefully pasteurized one may eventually continue its acetobacter process. If you see a fine film, and the vinegar still smells good, don’t worry. You created a “mother” that can turn other wines into vinegar.
Experiment with the vinegars listed above. Give black vinegar, available in Chinese markets, a try. Taste the delicacy of raspberry and blueberry vinegars to complement a summer’s night. With some ice and sugar, a fruity vinegar makes a delicious drink!
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