Real Food Encyclopedia | Vinegar

Sometimes when good things go bad it’s good. The “controlled rot” of coagulated milk solids might not sound appealing but is a good definition of aged cheese. The tender, juicy steakhouse cut gets its flavor from having some serious age under its belt. Vinegar, too, is just juice that has gone past its drinkable stage.

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Fun Facts about Vinegar:

  • The word “vinegar” comes from the French vin, for “wine” and aigre, “sour.”
  • In Roman times, the “posca,” a refreshing mixture of water and vinegar (aka: “shrub,” see below) was part of every meal.
  • In the 18th century, sponges soaked with vinegar were carried in small silver boxes, called vinaigrettes, or stored in the handles of canes. They were held under the nose to protect the bearer from the foul smells of the raw sewage that ran freely in the streets.
  • Full strength distilled white vinegar makes an excellent herbicide. Spray it in the cracks of your walk or drive to eliminate weeds without toxic chemicals.

What to Look for When Buying Vinegar

Vinegar, essentially, is the second fermentation of fruit juice (or grain mash). In the first fermentation, yeast digests the sugars in the juice and converts them into alcohol, turning grape juice into wine, for example. In the second fermentation, Acetobacter bacteria digests the alcohol and converts it into acetic acid, turning the wine, or other fermented beverage, into vinegar. There are many kinds of vinegar, each with its own flavor profile. A few of the most popular types of vinegar include: 

  • Wine Vinegars (White Wine, Champagne, Red Wine): Made from wine, these vinegars reflect the parent wine’s characteristic flavor to varying degrees, depending on how they were produced. Handcrafted or homemade batches will retain more of the taste of the base liquid. Versions that are manufactured quickly may not have as much of the wine’s personality and may be colored or flavored to mask this lack of character.
  • Apple Cider: Apple cider vinegar was very popular in the America’s early history. Blame it on John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, and his effort to populate the young country’s land with apple trees suitable for creating cider (that’s right: he was planting apple trees for hooch). 
  • White Distilled: Distilled vinegar is made from distilled spirits. In the United States, it is most commonly made from corn. Think of it as vinegar made from moonshine. It then goes through a second process which heats and condenses the vinegar to create a strong, consistent product.
  • Rice and Rice Wine Vinegar: Rice and rice wine vinegar are two separate kinds of vinegar. Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice and has the lighter flavor of the two. Rice wine vinegar is made from the lees, or dregs, of rice wine and has a fuller flavor. Both types of vinegar can be made from different types of rice which will be reflected in the flavor of the finished product. 
  • Balsamic: Balsamic vinegars are not made from wine but from the pressings of grapes that are boiled to create a syrup which is then fermented. The resulting liquid is aged for an extended period in a succession of casks made from different types of wood, bringing complexity to the flavor of the vinegar. During the aging process, much of the liquid evaporates, condensing and concentrating the flavor, which results in the sweet taste and viscous quality of balsamic
  • Malt Vinegar: Malt vinegar is made from beer and retains the warm brown color of the beverage. It is prized in England where the tangy condiment’s slightly nutty, sweet flavor is the traditional match for fish and chips.

Sustainability of Vinegar

Vinegar can be hand made in small batches or produced commercially by the vat. The crux of the environmental impact of the product lies in the ingredients from which it is made. Large volume, commercial producers often use genetically modified corn as the base ingredient for their vinegar production. While the production method may be the same as a manufacturer who is using organic corn, the environmental impact of GMOs is significantly greater.

Eating Vinegar

Storing Vinegar

Although all vinegars will remain safe to use indefinitely, those that have more distinct personalities, such as balsamic and malt vinegar, will lose flavor over time. To best preserve their taste, store them, closed, in a cool dark place. Once opened, use them within three years. The exception is distilled white vinegar, which will keep in the cabinet indefinitely with no change to color or flavor.

Cooking With Less Waste

Cooking with Vinegar

What can’t you do with vinegar? From sauces to drinks, here are some ideas on cooking with vinegar:

  • Dressing, marinades, sauces: The flavor of vinegar perks up a salad, adds brightness to a sauce and brings a deep level of flavor to your favorite marinade. But the chemical properties of vinegar are essential to making recipes great as well. Vinegar acts on protein strands, breaking them and then re-coagulating them. This process causes meats to become more tender. Taken too far, however, and the acid of vinegar can turn proteins mushy, so always follow your recipe’s suggestion for marinating time.
  • Desserts: Aged balsamic vinegar is sometimes used in desserts. Its sweet, syrupy personality add an interesting dimension to this after-dinner course. Balsamic plays nicely with fruits and with ice cream.
  • Pickling: The high acid content of vinegar keeps pathogens at bay. Submerging foods in a bath of vinegar or vinegar diluted with water can preserve them for weeks if refrigerated or longer if canned to provide an air-tight, microbe free environment. Pickled foods are delicious and offer a low-cost, low-tech way to enjoy local, seasonal food all year.
  • Beverages: “Drinking vinegar” is just another name for a shrub, the centuries (millennia?)-old drink that has long slaked the thirst of the parched. A few tablespoons of vinegar in a glass of cold water or seltzer and you’ve got a shrub.

Making Your Own Vinegar

You can make your own vinegar by inoculating diluted wine or hard cider with vinegar mother (the slimy stuff in a bottle of unpasteurized vinegar) or purchased vinegar culture. Pour into a large, wide mouth container, open to air but covered with cheese cloth to prevent a pest invasion, and place in a dark location. In a few weeks: magic — vinegar. Strain it through a fine cloth, and decant into a clean container, reserving a portion to start your next batch.

Vinegar Nutrition

Vinegar has very few calories and no fat. Balsamic vinegar has some carbohydrates in the form of sugar from the addition of must to its recipe. Most vinegars contain only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Apple cider vinegar offers some Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C. Vinegar that is unpasteurized, with a living mother in the bottle, is populated by thriving probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that we look for in yogurt, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. Such bacteria are believed to aid digestion and support gut health.