The word comes from French and means, literally, sour wine (vin = wine & aigre = sour.) Wine vinegar is only one kind, however. Vinegar can be made from any fruit, or other food which contains sugar. It’s been made from apples (cider vinegar), grapes, (red or white wine, Champagne, sherry, Balsamic), rice, sorghum, grains, molasses, dates, pineapple, coconuts, even bananas. It all depends on where you are and what’s at hand.
There are also flavored vinegars – herbal ones like tarragon and chive, fruity ones like raspberry, blueberry, or peach, and vegetable ones like garlic or shallot. These are made by infusing the desired herb, fruit, or vegetable in a neutral vinegar like white vinegar, which is usually made from grain and doesn’t have a strong flavor of its own.
Vinegar is a naturally fermented product made in two stages. The first is alcoholic fermentation; for example, apple cider (juice) ferments and becomes alcoholic. If you let it go further, a group of bacteria called acetobacter will convert the alcohol into acetic acid. This acid fermentation produces vinegar, which can be anywhere from 4% to 6.5 to 7% acetic acid.
Most of what you buy in the store is pasteurized to stop the fermentation and create a consistent product. It’s important to take note of the acid content of the vinegar you’re using. If you like rice wine or apple cider vinegar in a particular salad dressing recipe, for example, you may be shocked to find the flavor much too tart if you substitute red wine vinegar with an acid content of 6.5%.
If you have a lot of storage space and an adventurous palate, have fun trying different vinegars. If shelf or pantry space is more of a concern, I recommend stocking these basics: apple cider, rice wine/rice vinegar (plain, not seasoned), Balsamic, and red wine vinegar. White vinegar I store under the kitchen sink with the dishwashing detergent. I use it to remove those purply-pink discolorations on stainless steel pots caused by cooking starchy things like potatoes or rice; it’s a bit harsh for cooking.
And what do you cook or serve with vinegar? Perhaps you’ve never thought about how many things wouldn’t be the same without it. Besides salad dressings, vinegar goes into mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, white butter sauce, and béarnaise; poaching liquids, marinades, glazes, gastriques, classic dishes like poulet au vinaigre (chicken with vinegar) or duck à l’orange, agrodolce and aigre douce (sweet and sour dishes in Italy and France), and sweet and sour Asian dishes; and vinegar pie, a classic Pennsylvania Dutch dessert. Balsamic vinegar is drizzled on strawberries or peaches, and the British like malt vinegar on their fish and chips. In the South, long-cooked greens are doused with a splash of vinegar before serving. This not only enhances the taste; it makes the minerals in the greens more bio-available to the digestion.
There are traditional beverages made with vinegar such as switchel (haymaker’s punch), and shrub, and cocktails can be enlivened with the right touch of vinegar.
Wiping the bowl with a paper towel soaked in vinegar and drying it before beating egg whites ensures a fat-free surface which is important to achieving a maximum volume, stable egg foam. A bit of vinegar in pastry dough helps ensure tender pastry; a bit in the stock pot helps leach more minerals from the bones; when making caramel, vinegar keeps the sugar from crystallizing. When seasoning a dish, salt balances acid and vice versa. So if your sauce is a bit too salty, try adding a dash of vinegar; if it’s too acidic, add a little salt.
There is a last use for vinegar that comes to mind, though I wish I’d had the opportunity to taste this one rather than what did happen to it. When my daughter was studying in Ecuador, she went partying with friends at a festival where she was doused with a bucket of sugar water. She found herself with a head of sticky, stiff hair, which numerous shampoos did not dissolve.
Her chef mom thought about how she’d clean a pot full of caramel, and suggested hot vinegar as a rinse. The only vinegar her Ecuadorian mom had on hand was a homemade banana one, which she generously donated to the cause. Some contortions in the kitchen later, the problem was solved and my daughter was fit to be seen in public again. You may never need this tip, but I thought I’d offer it! It shows just how versatile vinegar is.