The Pocket Guide to Vinegars and Their Many Uses
Take a closer look at how your favorite pantry ingredients are made and how to pick them, store them, and of course, cook with them. First up in the series: vinegar.
Vinegar’s culinary history spans centuries; ancient civilizations used it for both medicinal and culinary purposes. It became particularly important because its high acid content allowed for the safe preservation of food. A pretty big win in the prefridge world. So what exactly is it? Renowned food scientist Harold McGee writes in his book On Food and Cooking, “Vinegar is alcohol’s fate, the natural sequel to an alcoholic fermentation.” Vinegar is the result of a second fermentation of alcohol. Sometimes it’s done with alcoholic beverages like cider, beer, or wine. The French word for vinegar is “vinaigre,” which translates to “sour wine.” Fruit and grain can also be fermented into alcohol specifically for making vinegar.
Most people think of vinegar only as a component in salad dressing, and while the vinaigrette will always have a place in our kitchen, vinegar can do so much more. Acid is a crucial element in cooking, and using it properly can balance richness, saltiness, and sweetness. It can add complex layers that wake up an otherwise one-note dish.
Which vinegar should you use? The most important thing to remember when choosing a vinegar is that it was once alcohol, so whatever that alcohol was made of will inform its flavor. For example, apple cider vinegar started as apples, which then fermented into alcohol and then fermented into vinegar. So it’s safe to assume it will taste a bit like apples, with sweet, fruity notes in addition to acidity.
Below is a list (not exhaustive, but close) of our favorite vinegars. Do you need them all? No, you can certainly get by with a few and still have all the pleasantly lip-puckering tang your heart and palate desire. If you’re trying to streamline your pantry but still want some variety, try using your chosen few vinegars in tandem with other sources of acid. Use lemon and white wine vinegar to deglaze a pan for a quick sauce, or add a pinch of astringent sumac to your red wine vinaigrette. These different acidic elements can work well together, adding depth and dimension. Just be mindful about balance; as always, taste as you go. While we have much respect for the kitchen minimalist who limits their pantry to three vinegars, we have a more-is-more attitude to vinegars. As they are one of the world’s greatest preservatives, they never really go bad, so we see no harm in loading up.
Distilled White Vinegar
Plain old white vinegar is good for more than just homemade cleaning solutions. White vinegar may seem less interesting than the wine and cider vinegars below, but that’s actually its best attribute. Since it’s made from a grain alcohol similar to vodka, the result is a neutral and clean-tasting acid. It adds extra tang without sweetness or other distracting flavors. Use it to make pickles, round out the sugar in marinades, or add a bit of tang to a creamy blue cheese dressing.
Also called rice wine vinegar, but not to be confused with rice wines like Shaoxing and mirin. Rice vinegar is delicate and slightly sweet, with a softer tang than most vinegars. It’s commonly used throughout East Asia and South East Asia in sauces, marinades, and salad dressings. That slight sweetness makes it ideal for quick-pickled veggies like the ones you’ll find stuffed into a banh mi. Some rice vinegar is labeled “seasoned,” meaning it has sugar in it so it’s ready to use for making quick dipping sauces or seasoning sushi rice, but we tend to prefer the regular variety so we can better control the amount of sweetness as we cook.
Also called Chinkiang or Zhenjiang vinegar, this dark-colored vinegar is made from fermented grains—usually glutinous rice or a combination of rice and wheat, millet, or sorghum. Like rice vinegar, this isn’t aggressively acidic, but there is a lot of flavor. It’s earthy, almost malty, and a little sweet. You can use it to dress salads—it’s especially nice in cold Chinese appetizers like wood ear mushroom salad or seaweed salad—and it’s essential to dipping sauce for dumplings.
Apple Cider Vinegar
While ACV may be overlauded as a home remedy, let’s not forget just how delicious it can be to cook with. Because of that signature apple flavor, it’s pretty easy to figure out what goes well with it: Mustard, pork, walnuts, rosemary, and ginger come to mind. Use it for everyday dressings, pickles, and especially in BBQ sauce—it lends sweetness and acidity that can cut through both fat and smoke.
Most supermarket brands are good, but check your local farmers’ market for apple vendors with small batches of ACV—unsurprisingly, top-quality apples result in even-better-quality vinegar. If you’re lucky, you might find an unpasteurized version with an odd-looking—but perfectly safe—slimy blob floating in it. That blob is known as the mother, and it functions similarly to the way a SCOBY would in kombucha: It converts sugar into alcohol and alcohol into the acetic acid that makes vinegar. If it bothers you, you can remove the mother; if you’re adventurous, you can use that mother to ferment your own vinegar out of leftover wine or hard cider.
Red Wine Vinegar
This is our everyday vinegar. GP uses it in her Go-To Vinaigrette. Like red wine, it’s fruity and bold and can hold its own against big flavors: briny olives, raw red onion, oil-packed tuna, bitter radicchio. Try using it to finish hearty stews and braises. That little hit of acid wakes up rich and earthy foods like lentils, beef, or even greens.
White Wine Vinegar
A milder cousin of red wine vinegar, this one is bright and crisp. Like white wine, it’s a lovely addition to pan sauces and seafood dishes. Try it in a vinaigrette with soft spring herbs like chervil, tarragon, and chives or in a buttery Castelvetrano olive relish. Champagne vinegar is made from champagne, so while it’s not exactly the same as white wine vinegar, it can be used as a substitute—if anything, it’s a bit more delicate.
Made from the fortified Spanish wine, sherry vinegar is like red wine vinegar’s cool older sibling. Sherry isn’t as sharp, and it tastes more nuanced because it’s aged. It’s a little sweeter, a bit nuttier, with an almost—and we mean this in the best way possible—raisiny flavor. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano and champagne, sherry wine and vinegar are protected imports from a specific region (in this case, a part of Spain known as the Sherry Triangle). When shopping, look for Spanish brands marked D.O.P. They’ll often be labeled Xeres or Jerez, as sherry is the anglicized term. Sherry vinegar with a bit of Dijon mustard makes a vinaigrette so delicious, you might as well use it as a dip. It’s a dream on peak-season heirloom tomatoes and really shines when used to finish a pan sauce for roast pork or braised greens.
It’s one of the more complicated vinegars on our list. The process of making traditional balsamic is unique—it’s probably the only grape-based vinegar that isn’t made directly from wine: It’s made from the grape must (crushed grape juice) of particular red wine grapes (Trebbiano and Lambrusco). The must is reduced to give it a higher sugar ratio, then fermented and aged for three to five years in various wood barrels. The result is sweeter and slightly thicker than most vinegars. Like sherry vinegar, balsamic is a specialty import from a specific region (in this case Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy) and there are certifications you can look for to verify that you’re buying the real deal. Anything with D.O.P or I.G.P should be from these regions. “Condimento” is another sign that you’ve found the good stuff. One last clue: It will likely fall on the more expensive side. Though drizzling a bit of real balsamic over a perfectly ripe fig with goat cheese is well worth it.
That said, most of the balsamic vinegar on the grocery store shelf is not true balsamic from Modena or Reggio Emilia. You can still find a decent midrange balsamic that isn’t certified or from Italy. If the ingredients include grape must, that’s a positive sign. If you see ingredients like caramel color and wine vinegar listed, it might be another type of vinegar with added sugars, coloring, and flavorings to mimic balsamic. Last, anything balsamic labeled as a drizzle, glaze, or reduction is not in fact vinegar and is usually a thickened, syrupy product. You’ll get a better taste by gently reducing your own balsamic at home for some drizzle action to garnish with.
Coconut vinegar is commonly used in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Many grocery stores in the US now carry coconut vinegar (along with other coconut-boom products like coconut aminos and coconut water). This vinegar is mild, a bit sweet, but not overwhelmingly coconutty. The tropical fragrance is suggestively in the background. Try it in stir fries, curries, or marinades for grilled meat and fish. Similar to rice vinegar, coconut vinegar’s natural sweetness makes it a good candidate for quick pickles.
Our pick: Coconut Secret Coconut Vinegar
You might know malt vinegar only in the context of fish and chips and other British pub fare. Malt vinegar is made from an ale of malted barley, which also serves as the base of many beers. So malt vinegar goes with rich, salty, fried pub food for the same reason beer does: It’s tangy and refreshing. Malt vinegar has uses outside of fried potatoes, though. It’s aged, which gives it almost caramel notes. Use malt vinegar to add a touch of acidity to glazes—like a maple glaze for roasted carrots. It’s not the sharpest vinegar, so pickles could work well, and you can pair it with other vinegars for a more layered flavor effect.
Special Vinegars to Look Out For
There are some interesting vinegars that fall outside of the traditional vinegar cannon. Tart Vinegar and Acid League are two brands we love that are making some wild and delicious vinegars. They use atypical vinegar bases, like celery, kombu, mango, and Meyer lemon, which makes them fun to play around with. Maybe these vinegars won’t make their way into your workhorse vinaigrette, but you’d use them for special food moments—like when peaches are precisely ripe and begging for burrata, or when you’ve finally cooked a big pot of those beautiful heirloom beans. We’re also into the idea of using them in a cocktail, like a cheat’s fruit shrub.
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