Ultimate Guide to Vinegar


Many different types of ingredients can go into vinegar, including grapes.
Many different types of ingredients can go into vinegar, including grapes.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

With a splash here or a half-cup there, vinegar adds zing and zest to your cooking and brings out the flavors of other foods. No kitchen pantry is complete without at least a few different types of this flavor-enhancer. Vinegar is a must-have ingredient for vinaigrettes, marinades, food preservation, or any recipe that needs a little extra kick.

You'll be astounded at all the things this seemingly simple condiment can do. In the following pages, you'll read all about how vinegar works and learn how to maximize this essential ingredient in your kitchen. Here's what we'll cover:

  • Types of Vinegar: If you think apple cider vinegar is exotic, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Vinegar comes in a wealth of flavors to complement different cuisines from around the world. This page will introduce you to the most popular flavors of vinegar, teach you which countries they come from, and help you pair them with foods that bring out their subtle flavors.
  • How to Make Your Own Vinegar: Get your creative juices flowing by reading about the process of making your own vinegar. Find out what basic equipment you need to create this condiment in your own kitchen. Learn how to add fruits and spices for innovative flavor combinations, creating a delicious seasoning for salads or an ideal gift for your favorite gourmet.
  • Uses for Vinegar in the Kitchen: For centuries, vinegar has been used not only to add zest to vegetables, but also to solve common household problems. Learn how this simple, inexpensive substance can clean your kitchen, spruce up your meals, and get rid of persistent smells. This affordable, nontoxic cleanser has a variety of practical applications that will surprise you.

Types of Vinegar

Coconut vinegar is popular in Southeast Asian cooking, and adds a yeasty flavor.
Coconut vinegar is popular in Southeast Asian cooking, and adds a yeasty flavor.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

You might be surprised to learn that there are dozens of types of vinegar. The most common vinegars found in American kitchens are white distilled and apple cider, but the more adventurous may also use red wine vinegar; white wine vinegar; rice vinegar; or gourmet varieties, such as 25-year-old balsamic vinegar or rich black fig vinegar.

Vinegar can be made from just about any food that contains natural sugars. Yeast ferments these sugars into alcohol, and certain types of bacteria convert that alcohol a second time into vinegar. A weak acetic acid remains after this second fermentation; the acid has flavors reminiscent of the original fermented food, such as apples or grapes. Acetic acid is what gives vinegar its distinct tart taste.

Pure acetic acid can be made in a laboratory; when diluted with water, it is sometimes sold as white vinegar. However, acetic acids created in labs lack the subtle flavors found in true vinegars, and synthesized versions don't hold a candle to vinegars fermented naturally from summer's sugar-laden fruits or other foods.

Vinegars can be made from many different foods that add their own tastes to the final products, but additional ingredients, such as herbs, spices, or fruits, can be added for further flavor enhancement.

Vinegar Varieties

Vinegar is great for a healthy, light style of cooking. The tangy taste often reduces the need for salt, especially in soups and bean dishes. It can also cut the fat in a recipe because it balances flavors without requiring the addition of as much cream, butter, or oil. Vinegar flavors range from mild to bold, so you're sure to find one with the taste you want. A brief look at some of the various vinegars available may help you choose a new one for your culinary escapades.

White Vinegar

This clear variety is the most common type of vinegar in American households. It is made either from grain-based ethanol or laboratory-produced acetic acid and then diluted with water. Its flavor is a bit too harsh for most cooking uses, but it is good for pickling and performing many cleaning jobs around the house.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is the second-most-common type of vinegar in the United States. This light-tan vinegar made from apple cider adds a tart and subtle fruity flavor to your cooking. Apple cider vinegar is best for salads, dressings, marinades, condiments, and most general vinegar needs.

Wine Vinegar

This flavorful type of vinegar is made from a blend of either red wines or white wines and is common in Europe, especially Germany. Creative cooks often infuse wine vinegars with extra flavor by tucking in a few sprigs of well-washed fresh herbs, dried herbs, or fresh berries. Red wine vinegar is often flavored with natural raspberry flavoring, if not with the fruit itself.

The quality of the original wine determines how good the vinegar is. Better wine vinegars are made from good wines and are aged for a couple of years or more in wooden casks. The result is a fuller, more complex, and mellow flavor.

You might find sherry vinegar on the shelf next to the wine vinegars. This variety is made from sherry wine, and usually is imported from Spain. Champagne vinegar (yes, made from the bubbly stuff) is a specialty vinegar and is quite expensive.

Wine vinegar excels at bringing out the sweetness of fruit, melon, and berries and adds a flavorful punch to fresh salsa.

Balsamic Vinegar

There are two types of this popular and flavorful vinegar, traditional and commercial. A quasigovernmental body in Modena, Italy (balsamic vinegar's birthplace), regulates the production of traditional balsamic vinegar.

Traditional balsamic. Traditional balsamic vinegars are artisanal foods, similar to great wines, with long histories and well-developed customs for their production. An excellent balsamic vinegar can be made only by an experienced crafter who has spent many years tending the vinegar, patiently watching and learning.

The luscious white and sugary trebbiano grapes that are grown in the northern region of Italy near Modena form the base of the world's best and only true balsamic vinegars. Customdictates that the grapes be left on the vine for as long as possible to develop their sugar. The juice (or "must") is pressed out of the grapes and boiled down; then, vinegar production begins.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged for a number of years -- typically 6 and as many as 25. Aging takes place in a succession of casks made from a variety of woods, such as chestnut, mulberry, oak, juniper, and cherry. Each producer has its own formula for the order in which the vinegar is moved to the different casks. Thus, the flavors are complex, rich, sweet, and subtly woody. Vinegar made in this way carries a seal from the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.

Because of the arduous production process, only a limited amount of traditional balsamic vinegar makes it to market each year, and what is available is expensive.

Leaf ratings. You might see that some traditional balsamic vinegars have leaves on their labels. This is a rating system that ranks quality on a one- to four-leaf scale, with four leaves being the best. You can use the leaf ranking as a guide for how to use the vinegar. For instance, one-leaf balsamic vinegar would be appropriate for salad dressing, while four-leaf vinegar would be best used a few drops at a time to season a dish right before serving. The Assaggiatori Italiani Balsamico (Italian Balsamic Tasters' Association) established this grading system, but not all producers use it.

Commercial balsamic. What you're more likely to find in most American grocery stores is the commercial type of balsamic vinegar. Some is made in Modena, but not by traditional methods. In fact, some balsamic vinegar isn't even made in Italy. Commercial balsamic vinegar does not carry the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena seal because it is not produced in accordance with the Consortium's strict regulations.

The production of commercial balsamic vinegar carries no geographical restrictions or rules for length or method of aging. There are no requirements for the types of wood used in the aging casks. It may be aged for six months in stainless steel vats, then for two years or more in wood. Thus, commercial balsamic vinegar is much more affordable and available than the true, artisanal variety.

Whether you're lucky enough to get your hands on the traditional variety or you're using commercial-grade balsamic, the taste of this fine vinegar is like no other. Its sweet and sour notes are in perfect proportion. Balsamic's flavor is so intricate that it brings out the best in salty foods such as goat cheese, astringent foods such as spinach, and sweet foods such as strawberries.

Rice Vinegar

Clear or very pale yellow, rice vinegar originated in Japan, where it is essential to sushi preparation. Rice vinegar is made from the sugars found in rice, and the aged, filtered final product has a mild, clean, and delicate flavor that is an excellent complement to ginger or cloves, sometimes with the addition of sugar.

Rice vinegar also comes in red and black varieties, which are less common in the United States but very popular in China. Both are stronger than the clear (often called white) or pale yellow types. Red rice vinegar's flavor is a combination of sweet and tart. Black rice vinegar is common in southern Chinese cooking and has a strong, almost smoky flavor.

Rice vinegar is popular in Asian cooking and is great sprinkled on salads and stir-fry dishes. Its gentle flavor is perfect for fruits and tender vegetables, too. Many cooks choose white rice vinegar for their recipes because it does not change the color of the food to which it is added. Red rice vinegar is good for soups and noodle dishes, and black rice vinegar works as a dipping sauce and in braised dishes.

Malt Vinegar

This dark-brown vinegar, a favorite in Britain, is reminiscent of deep-brown ale. Malt vinegar production begins with the germination, or sprouting, of barley kernels. Germination enables enzymes to break down starch. Sugar is formed, and the resulting product is brewed into an alcohol-containing malt beverage or ale. After bacteria convert the ale to vinegar, the vinegar is aged. As its name implies, malt vinegar has a distinctive malt flavor.

A cheaper and less flavorful version of malt vinegar consists merely of acetic acid diluted to between 4 percent and 8 percent acidity with a little caramel coloring added.

Many people prefer malt vinegar for pickling and as an accompaniment to fish and chips. It is also used as the basic type of cooking vinegar in Britain.

Cane Vinegar

This type of vinegar is produced from the sugar cane and is used mainly in the Philippines. It is often light yellow and has a flavor similar to rice vinegar. Contrary to what you might think, cane vinegar is not any sweeter than other vinegars.

Beer Vinegar

Beer vinegar has an appealing light-golden color and, as you might guess, is popular in Germany, Austria, Bavaria, and the Netherlands. It is made from beer, and its flavor depends on the brew from which it was made. It has a sharp, malty taste.

Coconut Vinegar

If you can't get your Asian recipes to taste "just right," it might be because you don't have coconut vinegar -- a white vinegar with a sharp, acidic, slightly yeasty taste. This staple of Southeast Asian cooking is made from the sap of the coconut palm and is especially important to Thai and Indian dishes.

Raisin Vinegar

This slightly cloudy brown vinegar is traditionally produced in Turkey and used in Middle Eastern cuisines. Try infusing it with a little cinnamon to bolster its mild flavor. Salad dressings made with raisin vinegar will add an unconventional taste to your greens.

Now that you've got the idea of the wide variety of vinegar flavors available, perhaps you are inspired to create your own. Go to the next page to find out how to make your own vinegar.

How to Make Your Own Vinegar

Herbs like rosemary are an excellent choice to infuseinto vinegar for marinating your favorite meats.
Herbs like rosemary are an excellent choice to infuseinto vinegar for marinating your favorite meats.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Perhaps reading about all these exciting kinds of vinegar has whetted your appetite to make some of your own. Experimenting with flavors can be fun, and it's especially rewarding when you use your own vinegar in favorite dishes or give it as a gift.

You'll want to get exact directions from your local brewing supply store or university extension service. Be sure the directions you follow are tested and researched for safety to avoid food-borne illness. Take a look at this rundown of the general process to make apple cider vinegar to see if you're up to the task:

  • Make apple cider by pressing clean, washed, ripe apples (fall apples have more sugar than early-season apples). Strain to make a clean juice and pour it into sterilized containers.
  • Use yeast designed for brewing wine or beer (not baker's yeast) to ferment the fruit sugar into alcohol.
  • Now let bacteria convert the alcohol to acetic acid. Leaving the fermenting liquid uncovered invites acid-making bacteria to take up residence (you might, however, want to place some cheesecloth or a towel over your container's opening to prevent insects, dirt, or other nasty items from getting into the mixture). Some vinegar brewers use a "mother of vinegar" (see box, above) as a "starter," or source of the acid-producing bacteria.
  • Keep the liquid between 60 degrees and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the fermentation process; it will take three to four weeks to make vinegar. If you keep the liquid too cool, the vinegar may be unusable. If it's kept too warm, it may not form the mother of vinegar mat at the bottom of the container. The mother of vinegar mat signifies proper fermentation. Stir the liquid daily to introduce adequate amounts of oxygen, which is necessary for fermentation.
  • After three to four weeks, the bacteria will have converted most of the alcohol, and the mixture will begin to smell like vinegar. Taste a little bit each day until it reaches a flavor and acidity that you like.
  • Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth or coffee filter several times to remove the mother of vinegar. Otherwise the fermentation process will continue and eventually spoil your vinegar.
  • Store in sterilized, capped jars in the refrigerator.
  • If you want to store homemade vinegar at room temperature for more than a few months, you must pasteurize it. Do this by heating it to 170 degrees Fahrenheit (use a cooking thermometer to determine the temperature) and hold it at this temperature for 10 minutes. Put the pasteurized vinegar in sterilized containers with tight-fitting lids, out of direct sunlight.
  • You can also make vinegar from wine; the process is similar.

Flavor Infusion

Whether you start with homemade or store-bought vinegar, you can kick it up by adding flavorful herbs or spices. Garlic, basil, rosemary, and tarragon are herbs commonly added to white wine vinegar. Other herbs or fruits, such as raspberries, also can enhance vinegar's taste. These additions leave their flavors and trace amounts of healthy nutrients, too.

Herbal vinegars need to be carefully prepared to avoid contamination with potentially harmful bacteria. Most bacteria cannot exist in vinegar's acidic environment, but a few deadly ones can, so follow a few basic steps:

  • Use only high-quality vinegars when creating flavor combinations. Typically, white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar are best for flavoring. Remember, though, that these vinegars contain trace amounts of protein that could give harmful bacteria an ideal place to live unless you prepare and store the vinegars properly.
  • Wash your storage bottles and then sterilize them by completely immersing them in boiling water for ten minutes. Always fill the bottles while they are still warm, and be sure you have a tight-fitting lid, cap, or cork for each one.
  • If you're using fresh herbs, there is a risk of harmful bacteria hitchhiking their way into the vinegar via the sprigs. Commercial vinegar processors use antimicrobial agents to sanitize herbs, but you probably won't be able to find these chemicals. University extension publications recommend mixing one teaspoon of bleach into six cups of water and dipping the fresh herbs into this solution. Then rinse the herbs thoroughly and pat them dry. This will minimize the possibility of any harmful bacteria making their way into the vinegar and will not affect the taste.
  • Be sure your fresh herbs are in top-notch condition--bruising or decay indicates the presence of bacteria. If you harvest your own herbs, do so in the morning, when the essential oils are at their peak. Use three to four sprigs or three tablespoons of dried herbs per pint of vinegar. Mix it up a bit by adding some spices or vegetables, such as garlic or hot peppers. Thread garlic, peppers, or other small items on a skewer so you can remove them easily when you've infused enough flavors.
  • To add fruit flavors to vinegar, thoroughly wash fruit, berries, or citrus rind. Use one to two cups of fruit for every pint of vinegar, but only the rind of one lemon or orange per pint. You can thread small fruits or chunks of fruit on a skewer and tie chopped rind in a small piece of clean cheesecloth to make removal easy.
  • When you're ready to start mixing, place the herbs or flavoring in the sterilized, hot bottles. Heat the vinegar to 190 degrees Fahrenheit and then pour it over the herbs in the sterilized bottles. Heating the vinegar to 190 degrees Fahrenheit will prevent bacteria from forming and also help release the essential oils from the herbs, spices, or fruits.
  • Put a tight-fitting lid on your container and allow the vinegar to stand in a cool, dark place for three to four weeks. When it has enough flavor, strain it through a cheesecloth or coffee filter several times until any cloudiness is gone.
  • Discard the fruits, spices, or herbs and pour the filtered vinegar into newly sterilized containers. If you want to add a decorative herb sprig, sanitize it using the method described earlier. Seal tightly.
  • Store the vinegar in the refrigerator for the best flavor retention; it will keep well for six to eight months. Unrefrigerated vinegar will keep its flavor for only two to three months. If left to look pretty on a sunny windowsill for more than a few weeks, use the vinegar only as decoration, not as food.
  • You can use your herbal vinegar in nearly any recipe that calls for plain vinegar.

A Homemade Vinegar Caution

The acidity of homemade vinegar varies greatly. If you make your own vinegar, do not use it for canning, for preserving, or for anything that will be stored at room temperature. The vinegar's acidity, or pH level, may not be sufficient to preserve your food and could result in severe food poisoning. The pH level in homemade vinegar can weaken and allow pathogens, such as the deadly E. coli, to grow. Homemade vinegar is well suited for dressings, marinades, cooking, or pickled products that are stored in the refrigerator at all times. Now that you've got a taste for the possibilities in vinegar flavors, find out all the ways you can use vinegar in your kitchen. Go to the next page for some great ideas.

Uses for Vinegar in the Kitchen

In both Great Britain and Japan, vinegar is often used to bring out the flavor in fish.
In both Great Britain and Japan, vinegar is often used to bring out the flavor in fish.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Vinegar's acidity makes it a natural wonder in your kitchen. Besides the burst of flavor vinegar lends to whatever it touches, it serves other purposes, too:

  • Meat tenderizer: Vinegar's acid helps break down muscle fibers in tough meats. Make a mixture of half vinegar and half broth, and soak tough meat in this solution for up to two hours. (Because of vinegar's ability to tenderize, never leave fish in a marinade that contains vinegar for longer than 20 minutes; otherwise the fish might get mushy.)
  • Fish poacher: When poaching fish, put a tablespoon of vinegar in the poaching water to keep the fish from falling apart. Vinegar helps the protein in the fish coagulate, and mushiness isn't a problem because fish is usually poached for less than 20 minutes.
  • Egg saver: Put a tablespoon of vinegar in the water when boiling eggs. If any eggs crack while dancing in the water, their whites will coagulate and not escape from the shells.
  • Buttermilk stand-in: When a recipe calls for buttermilk and you have none, substitute plain milk and add a little vinegar. Use one tablespoon of vinegar per cup (eight ounces) of milk. Let stand 10 to 15 minutes at room temperature until it thickens, then use it in your recipe as you would buttermilk. Choose mild-flavored vinegar, such as apple cider vinegar, for this purpose.
  • Candy smoother: When making homemade candy and icing, a few drops of vinegar will prevent the texture from getting grainy.
  • Potato whitener: Cover peeled potatoes with water and a tablespoon or two of vinegar to keep them from browning.
  • Food preserver: Use vinegar to make pickles or to can vegetables to preserve the freshness of your garden or local farm stand. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes up-to-date information about pickling, canning, and preserving. These instructions will yield tasty pickles and home-canned products that are safe to eat. Check your local state university extension office or the USDA Web site for tips about pickling.

Vinegar to the Rescue!

Let vinegar solve some common, frustrating household problems:

  • Pour about a teaspoon of vinegar into a nearly empty mayonnaise jar and swish it around to get out the last of the mayonnaise.
  • Use it to remove berry stains from your hands.
  • Soak a paper towel with vinegar and place it in a smelly lunchbox overnight to remove those hard-to-get-rid-of odors.
  • Simmer a small saucepan of water and vinegar to remove cooking smells from the kitchen.
  • Add vinegar to a piecrust recipe and the dough will be easier to roll out. (The crust may be less flaky, however.) Most recipes call for about a tablespoon of vinegar for a double crust.

Vinegar's Vim

No matter how you look at it, vinegar can add spice to your culinary life. Prowl the gourmet shops in your area and you'll find dozens of different vinegars. Select a few to bring home and put them to use with the recipes in this book. Your taste buds will definitely be pleased, but it may be your health that benefits most.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gayle Povis Alleman, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in traditional nutrition from Western Washington University and a master's degree in alternative nutrition from Bastyr University. This varied background allows her to bring together the best of both approaches to offer research-based, holistic information about wholesome foods, nutrition, and health. As a writer, educator, and speaker, she encourages people to achieve optimum health through food, nutrients, and physical activity.