What is vinegar?
Vinegar is one of the multitaskers of the kitchen cupboard, and you’ll be surprised at how many ways it can be used. It’s an acidic condiment created through the fermentation of alcohol, the bacteria present in the fermentation break down the alcohol and convert it – mainly into acetic acid with other trace elements. This gives vinegar its distinctive sour flavour. The base alcohol you start with determines the character of the finished vinegar but typically wine, cider, champagne, beer and grain alcohol can all be used. In slowly fermented, naturally produced vinegar, a jelly-like film appears on the surface of the liquid as the alcohol is converted into vinegar – this is called the ‘mother’ and can be used again to make more vinegar. In larger commercial operations, different chemical processes are often used to speed up production. The production of vinegar can range from years in artisan products to hours in mass-produced ones.
How to use vinegar
Apart from obvious uses like dressings and pickles, vinegar can be used as a brilliant cooking ingredient. Add to marinades for fattier meat cuts like pork ribs (it also acts as a tenderiser). A tablespoon or two of vinegar in a slow-cooked stew or chilli will add an extra dimension of flavour and any sourness will cook out. A splash of vinegar can be used to deglaze a pan to give depth to sauces, or try brushing pork belly skin with vinegar before roasting for extra-crispy skin. Adding a little vinegar and cornflour to egg whites will stabilise meringues, and it’s often used alongside baking powder in cakes to give the sponge extra lift.
How to store vinegar
Vinegar can’t really go ‘off’ but it can discolour or lose some of its characteristic flavour if light or heat oxidises it. Keep in a cool dark place away from the stove and with the cap or stopper firmly in place.
What types of vinegar are there?
Red and white wine vinegar are culinary staples, and great when you want to add an extra kick to salad dressings and marinades. As with all vinegars, you will get what you pay for so it’s worth spending a little extra to get a longer- fermented, more complex vinegar. Use red wine vinegar in a classic French dressing or add a splash to spiced red cabbage when cooking (this stops it turning purple). White wine vinegar is great for a sauce base such as hollandaise or when you don’t want to add colour to a dish.
Varietal wine vinegar
A slightly more expensive, refined version of a white or red wine vinegar, these use a specific grape variety and bring out the characteristics of the grape. Common ones are chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, muscatel and champagne. Use with a neutral oil such as groundnut in a salad dressing so the flavour of the vinegar can shine through.
A sweeter more concentrated vinegar used widely in Spanish cooking. Good sherry vinegar is aged in wood and is labelled vinagre de Jerez – those also labelled reserva and gran reserva have been aged for longer. The most common grape in sherry is palomino but sherry vinegar can also be made from the sweeter pedro ximénez. Sherry vinegar will add an authentic tang to gazpacho or try drizzled over griddled peppers.
The very best balsamic holds a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and will be labelled tradizionale di Modena or tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. The grape must (freshly crushed grape juice, seeds and pulp) is reduced until syrupy then fermented and aged naturally for at least 12 years and up to 25 years in a succession of wooden barrels. Depending on how it’s made and aged, this can command extremely high prices. It should be used sparingly – served simply with aged parmesan or drizzled over best-quality ice cream.
Less expensive is balsamic labelled di Modena. This vinegar has an IGP stamp and is made by blending cooked grape must with good-quality wine vinegar from the same region. Quality and price can vary. Cheaper balsamics (simply labelled balsamic vinegar) can have caramel and thickening agents added to mimic the viscous good stuff.
White balsamic vinegar
You might see this labelled as white condiment as it’s legally not allowed to be called balsamic. Made from the trebbiano grape, this has a rich sweetness and a very gentle acidity. Use in a marinade for subtle cheeses such as mozzarella or fresh goat’s cheese.
Cider vinegar/apple cider vinegar
Regular cider vinegar has a slightly sweeter/fruitier edge than white wine vinegar as you’d expect from the apple base. Apple cider vinegar is a huge trend in the US and is steadily working its way into the UK market, bringing promises of lots of different health benefits. If looking for this type of vinegar you’ll need to buy it sold with the mother in its raw unpasteurised form.
Rice vinegar/rice wine vinegar
Most commonly found and used in Japanese and Chinese cuisines, this vinegar is made from fermented rice wine or spirit. Japanese rice vinegar is mellow and very pale yellow, whereas Chinese rice wine vinegar is slightly stronger and comes in white, red and black varieties. The Japanese version is the base for sushi rice seasoning and Chinese is used in a lot of classic Szechuan cooking such as smacked cucumbers.
Made from ale (the malt reference is the malted barley used in the creation of the ale). It is quite a strong vinegar so keep for sprinkling over classic fish and chips, or use to make strong pickled onions.
There are many fruit- and herb-flavoured vinegars on the market but you can make a simple infused vinegar at home by adding ingredients to a neutral base vinegar such as white wine and leaving it to infuse for a couple of weeks before straining. Good things to add include aromatic herbs such as tarragon or rosemary, fiery red chillies or whole spice combinations including mustard seed, peppercorns and allspice berries.