Vinegar Makes for Delicious Substitute

A luxurious alternative for fats and salts, vinegar is a gourmet delight.

| March/April 2003

  • It’s easy to create festive vinegars with fresh herbs and fruit.
    Photography By Joe Coca
  • It’s easy to create festive vinegars with fresh herbs and fruit.
    Photography By Joe Coca
  • It’s easy to create festive vinegars with fresh herbs and fruit.
    Photography By Joe Coca

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.

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