In my decades, in which I call myself a serious househusband, hang out in the kitchen and structure my weekends according to ambitious recipes that I call “Saturday cooking projects”, I love one thing above all: vinegar.
There is nothing like that sour, tangy dash of vinegar, be it the basis for a vinaigrette I came up with for a salad with fresh vegetables from my local farmer’s market, a final drizzle in a pan or even a few tablespoons consumed right now my acid reflux is occurring (believe me, it works). When I travel, I look for funkier vinegars that I might not find at home – last year in Bologna, Italy, I scoured the streets for a properly cured balsamic vinegar, ready to spend hundreds of euros on my purchase. When it comes to balsamic vinegar, taste the good ones.
Years ago when I was visiting Nebraska, I stumbled upon a vinegar lover’s paradise. I met in the small town of Cody George Paul Johnson, a former rancher who brought his farming and farming experience to a full-fledged, small-batch vinegar business that he both owns and operates. From him I learned that making vinegar is an extremely complex scientific process. But once you get a tight grip on a guy, the door opens for you to learn more.
Don’t be intimidated – knowing which vinegars are good and worth buying is an ongoing process. Maybe you already love vinegar and want a few tips to help you find a new favorite. Or maybe you know very little about vinegar overall and since you’ve spent more time in your kitchen over the past year, you want to get to know each other. Whatever the case, consider this your vinegar primer and me your guide.
What is vinegar
The art of making vinegar is not new. As old as the alcohol that earliest records of vinegar dated to 3000 BC When the Egyptians kept it in urns. Until relatively recently in this 5,000-year history, vinegar was aged slowly, often for years, in wooden barrels. Vinegar is now being mass-produced, with few vinegars being made with the same deliberate slowness.
In any case, the process of making vinegar follows the same basic formula: While the fruit juices, which form the basis of many vinegars, ferment, yeast converts the naturally occurring sugar into alcohol. This is how Acetobacter or Acetobacteria enter, which feed on alcohol and produce acetic acid. The “mother” is another by-product of fermentation, an active culture that once added to the juice, which is now rich in acetic acid, slows down the vinegar making process. This mixture can stand for two to three months (or longer, depending on the particular vinegar) until the required sour, funky taste is achieved.
The most common types of vinegars, what to look for and how to use them
In recent years, there has been a surge in new, social media-savvy vinegar brands that sell a clean, bright, and modern aesthetic. Think of companies like Brightland, headquartered in California, or Pineple Collaborative and its ever-popular ACV cider variety.
Choosing a vinegar from this ever-growing shelf of options can be overwhelming. Let’s honor that. Here’s what to consider when shopping for vinegar and a few tips on how to use your new vinegar when you are at home.
White wine vinegar
Distilled white, one of the most popular and accessible forms of vinegar, is a blank board – literally a blank board as it is clear in the pear and is used for everything from marinating (and tenderizing) meat to cleaning. Use distilled white vinegar to marinate meat or fish, as a base in a salad dressing or even for baking – together with baking powder, distilled white vinegar serves as a leavening agent.
Due to the long ripening time, dark in color, balsamic vinegar is mainly produced in Modena, Italy and has to meet strict requirements, including certain Gre varieties, in order to be called balsamic vinegar. Once you have verified balsamic vinegar, the most obvious way to use it straight from the bottle is drizzled over salads, toasts, or any number of other dishes. Vinegar can be used to enhance or balance flavors, and balsamic vinegar is no exception. I put a few splashes in red sauces which deepens them in ways I couldn’t otherwise reproduce. There is also white balsamic vinegar made from white gres. I use Ponte Vecchio white balsamic vinegar, which I found in a Bermudian lobster curry dish at an Atlanta market.
Please apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar, made from fermented apple cider vinegar, is fruity in smell and taste. This vinegar is best bought without cloudy deposits on the bottom of the bottle; Instead, it should be clear with a crisp, subtle cookie smell. In cooking, there are a number of ways that ACV can be a secret tool. The Tex-Mex ground beef tacos I make are often based on ACV as a finishing sauce to bring together the flavors of cumin, smoked prika, ground coriander, and chili powder.
Salad dressings are another fun use for ACV. I love making my own vinaigrettes from scratch because I can adjust the amount of salt, fresh herbs, and spices. My choice is an apple cider vinaigrette: along with ACV, I mix chopped garlic, a few dashes of crushed red pepper flakes, raw honey, and kosher salt in a mason jar, then shake until completely emulsified.
Wine vinegar – red, white and champagne – is created when residual wine and a mother culture are fermented together. Likewise, sherry vinegars are sold in a spectrum from super dark to ultra light, all of which have the nutty notes that sherry is known for. Wine vinegar is a must for salad dressings and marinades, as well as flavor enhancers for soups and other ready-made dishes.
Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice and is the key to sauces, stir-fries, and other East and Southeast Asian dishes. Also known as rice wine vinegar when made from fermented rice wine, this type of vinegar is usually sweeter than other vinegars while still adding a crisp acidity to finished dishes.
Malt vinegar is made from ale and English origin. If you’ve ever had fish and chips, you will know this one. Crispy fries go wonderfully with a malt vinegar and a pinch of salt.
Darker is better, both for the bottle and for the storage space. Once you’ve brought it home, avoid storing vinegar in a sunny place or near an oven where it could come into contact with a source of heat. Vinegar dispensers with glass cones look cute, but exposure to air greatly affects the taste and aroma of a vinegar. A pantry or closet are the best storage tips, and when stored properly, vinegar has an unlimited shelf life.
Building your vinegar collection takes time, research, and patience. But it’s worth it when you can pull out the perfect vinegar and tie all of the meandering elements of your dish together with one final splash.
Nneka M. Okona is a writer and lives in Atlanta. She is the author of Self-care for grief, a guide to taking care of yourself while holding a loss.
Michelle K. Min is a food photographer based in San Francisco.