Use this buyer’s guide to stock your pantry with an array of flavorful, healthful vinegars.
In Ruhlman’s Twenty, food writer Michael Ruhlman asserts that acid is second only to salt for elevating the flavors of your cooking. Just a few drops of acid in the form of citrus or vinegar can make a dish more complex — “brighter,” as Ruhlman says. To explore the power of acid, he suggests making a cream of broccoli soup and tasting it. Then stir in a drop of white wine vinegar and taste it again.
The options for using vinegar are nearly endless. To make a simple sauce for meat or vegetables, bring vinegar to a rapid boil and reduce by half. Add vinegar to braising liquids to tenderize meats. Vinegar is also the famous food preserver used to make pickles. And, of course, vinegar has many uses outside of the kitchen. (Check out our guide 20 Uses for Vinegar.)
Nutritionally speaking, vinegar is a healthful combination of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. and C.N.S., includes vinegar in his book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, but he cautions that you must look for unpasteurized and naturally fermented vinegar if you’re looking to get up to 50 nutrients. Many people swear by small doses of apple cider vinegar before or with meals to assist with weight loss, and some studies have confirmed that apple cider vinegar has a positive effect on blood sugar levels. Whether or not it will help you lose weight, it definitely carries the probiotic, digestion- and immunity-boosting benefits of all naturally fermented foods.
Your kitchen is well-stocked if you have wine, cider, and possibly malt and sherry vinegars. If you can add one exquisite aged balsamic vinegar to the mix, you’re really in luck. Keep in mind that you will often only need to use a few drops of this delicious (but expensive) elixir.
Ruhlman says the type of vinegar you have doesn’t matter as much as the quality, however. So how do you know if what you are buying is good? The quality of vinegar is all about the quality of the starting ingredients. You can’t expect crappy wine to age into a fine vinegar. Similarly, you wouldn’t drink apple cider made from terrible apples, so you won’t get a good cider vinegar unless the fresh, unfermented apple juice was some pretty good stuff.
One key is to buy organic vinegars made from real food ingredients. Read ingredient labels. Vinegar does not need additives. There is no need to add sugar to the real vinegars that develop their sweet complexity from actually being aged. If vinegar has colors added to it, there’s something wrong. The color should come from the original ingredients. And why on Earth would you need preservatives in your vinegar? Vinegar is a preservative!
Another strategy in selecting top-quality vinegar is to look for certifications and awards. Real balsamic vinegar should contain only one ingredient: grape must. Its label should say “Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale” and have a “D.O.P.” stamp on it — these indicate quality control. Wine-producing regions often make excellent vinegars. Look for award-winning organic vinegars from California, in particular. Finally, let your own taste be the guide. If you are able to taste vinegar before buying, such as at a farmers market, even better.
To Recap: Good vinegar tastes good. It should contain few ingredients, and only real foods (ideally organically grown). It should have been naturally fermented and never pasteurized.
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