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Recently, I was asked about vinegar. Specifically, I was asked about the difference between the different kinds of vinegar and when to use them. Valid request! I hate buying a bottle of a particular type of vinegar, only to use a couple of tablespoons and then not needing it again for, sometimes, years! It’s incredibly frustrating when pantry space is at a premium. How many types of vinegar does one kitchen need? When I cleaned out my pantry last year, something that we should all do a lot more often, I found all sorts of types of vinegar. Most of the bottles, barely touched. The ones that I use frequently were right upfront, I’m talking about those mystery bottles that migrate into the far depths of my food storage space. They included two different kinds of white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar, and malt vinegar – all used just once. This got me thinking about how many kinds of vinegar are essential and for what purposes. I did my research, and I’m pleased to share my enlightenment with you!
First, let’s look at the basics. Not many foods can be a prized cooking ingredient, a household cleaner, and provide health benefits, like vinegar! Appropriately, vinegar got its name from the French term vin aigre, which means “sour wine”. In simple terms, it’s made by adding bacteria to wine, hard cider, beer—or sugars, which is then fermented and converted into acetic acid. This process gives each type of vinegar its distinctive taste and color. Flavors range from sour to savory to sweet. Some vinegar, such as balsamic, can be left to ferment for up to 25 years. Vinegar has been traced back to 5000 B.C.E. in Babylon, not just for cooking but as a medicine, a preservative, and a drink to boost strength and promote wellness. Today, I’m focusing on cooking with vinegar.
Vinegar plays three critical roles in cooking. The most popular use for vinegar is making salad dressings, marinades, sauces, mayonnaise, and ketchup. The acidity or sourness of vinegar brightens the flavor of food and adds balance to a rich dish. Second, that acidity can change the texture of food by breaking down the chemical structure of protein. This is why it is often used in marinades for fish, seafood, and meats. It can also transform milk into a buttermilk substitute and make cottage cheese by separating the milk’s solid curds into the liquid whey. Lastly, vinegar can be used as a pickling preservative to extend perishable foods’ shelf life by killing bacteria. However, it’s more commonly used as part of a brining solution to make pickled vegetables.
There are dozens of different kinds of vinegar, even more, when you add in the specialty vinegar with added herbs like basil, clove, or cinnamon, or are sweetened with fruit juices. However, that number is reduced to just 5 types needed in home kitchens, like mine. Five. Surprised? I will admit, I was. I was kinda hoping all I needed was one vinegar. Wrong! There is no one all-purpose vinegar. (Darn!). The fab five vinegars needed in a well-stocked pantry include Apple Cider Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Rice Vinegar, Wine Vinegar, and White (distilled) vinegar.
While there is no “all-purpose” vinegar, there is a most common” vinegar. In the U.S., it’s distilled white vinegar. While it’s inexpensive and is a great household cleaner (the stuff is practically a miracle worker, but that’s for another blog), it’s really not used in too many recipes, other than for pickling. It’s taste is way too overpowering. So, where does that leave us? Well, the good news is that distilled white vinegar is among the fab five vinegars that warrant space in your pantry, even if it’s only used for cleaning and making the occasional pickled veggie.
Wine vinegar is considered everyday vinegar and is excellent in salad dressings. Wine vinegar pairs with food similarly to its alcoholic drinking wine counterpart. The three most used wine vinegars are red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar. Red wine vinegar is most often used in European dishes and pairs well with bolder flavors like beef, pork, and vegetables. It delivers a full, rounded taste. White wine vinegar is light-bodied and has a mild fruity flavor. It is excellent for lighter vinaigrettes, chicken, fish, rich sauces, and pickling. Champagne vinegar is best used not during cooking but in a finish like a complimentary salad dressing or condiment. This bright vinegar has a sharp tang but a light flavor. If cooking is your passion, and you have the shelf space, you may want to stock all three. However, for most of us, just one wine vinegar is needed. Red wine vinegar is the preferred choice. It is a multi-purpose wine vinegar and can be substituted for most other kinds of wine vinegar without consequence.
Rice vinegar, light-bodied, sweet, and mild without a lot of zing, is made from fermented rice. It’s primarily used in Asian cuisine, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes, and is ideal for meat and fish marinades and dipping sauces. Rice vinegar is a crucial ingredient in sushi and is fabulous in salad dressings, lightly pickled vegetables, or mixed into rice. It can be a milder alternative to white wine and apple cider vinegar. Rice vinegar comes in regular and seasoned (with added salt and sugar) varieties. For clean rice vinegar flavor, regular is the preferred choice.
Balsamic vinegar is very dark in color, almost syrupy, and is the sweetest of all the varieties of vinegar. Aged balsamic vinegar tends to be quite expensive and best used to drizzle. Younger balsamic vinegar found in grocery stores can be used in recipes with olive oil for salad dressings or reduced to a thicker sauce for red meats and root vegetables. Balsamic vinegar makes a delicious dessert component when drizzled on fresh fruit and vanilla ice cream.
Apple Cider Vinegar comes in second to distilled white vinegar in U.S. popularity. It is a kitchen staple that is big on flavor featuring a sharp medium body that is bright, mildly sweet, majorly fruity with lots of zing. It’s made from pressed apples that are fermented into alcohol before turning into vinegar. Uses include vinaigrettes, salad dressings, sauces with a kick — like adobo, soups, homemade sodas, hot drinks, and pickles. What white vinegar is to cleaning, apple cider vinegar is to health. It’s touted for everything from use as a digestive aid to skin toner. Google it!
There you have it, the fab five vinegars you want in your pantry: Apple Cider Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Rice Vinegar, Wine Vinegar, and White (distilled) Vinegar. The good news is that you only need five kinds of vinegar to have a well-stocked pantry. The bad news is that you need five kinds of vinegar to have a well-stock pantry. It’s all perspective.
If you have a question on ingredients, recipes, cooking products or equipment, please contact me. Happy Cooking