Choose your vinegar

By Patricia West-Barker
For the Taos News
Posted 3/15/20

From its origins as a rare and valuable condiment in ancient Mesopotamia to its use as a remedy for the bubonic plague and evolution into an everyday drink for the poor in the Middle Ages, vinegar has made an appearance in almost every culture, and every cuisine, around the world.

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Choose your vinegar

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From its origins as a rare and valuable condiment in ancient Mesopotamia to its use as a remedy for the bubonic plague and evolution into an everyday drink for the poor in the Middle Ages, vinegar has made an appearance in almost every culture, and every cuisine, around the world.

Today, vinegar is often used to clean, pickle and preserve -- but its most important function may be to bring out the flavor of many different kinds of dishes, something chefs know and home cooks are just learning. "While salt enhances flavors, acid balances them," writes Samin Nosrat, author of "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking."

Which vinegar should you use for which dish? Nosrat suggests letting the geography and agricultural traditions of the vinegar's origins -- wine in France, grapes in Italy, barley in England, rice in Asia, apples in the United States -- guide your choices. Start by adding a small amount of vinegar to a dish --a teaspoon or a tablespoon -- and experiment to find your personal preferences.

Distilled white vinegar

Made from fermented distilled alcohol, this strong, sharp vinegar is used in commercial salad dressings and condiments (like ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard). At home you can use it to make pickles or brines, clean your stove, descale your coffeemaker or fuel a science-fair volcano.

Balsamic vinegar

This syrupy Italian classic from Modena is not made from wine or alcohol but from the must, skin, seeds, stems and juice of freshly pressed grapes, then aged in oak barrels. The longer it's aged, the thicker, sweeter -- and more expensive -- it becomes. You can improve the flavor of a less expensive balsamic by very slowly simmering one cup of it in a nonreactive pan until it reduces to one-fourth cup. Use it for salad dressings, on a caprese salad of tomatoes and mozzarella, or to drizzle over ripe strawberries.

White balsamic vinegar, made from white trebbiano grapes, is less sweet and less sticky. It makes a milder salad dressing, and can be used as a marinade for white meats, for deglazing a pan or sprinkling on roasted veggies.

Apple cider vinegar

An old-school acid made from apples that have been pressed before being fermented in alcohol, apple cider vinegar can range from slightly sweet to very tart. It's good in salad dressings and marinades, and an essential ingredient in pickles and chutneys. It's also considered by some to promote digestive and gut health.

Red wine vinegar

A byproduct of fermented red wine, this is the most popular vinegar in the U.S. Use it to make a tangy vinaigrette, as a marinade, to add depth to a soup, stew or braise, to sprinkle a tiny bit over roasted veggies to bring out their sweetness. It will tint a bowl of quick pickled onions a deep pink.

White wine vinegar

Mellower and usually less sharp than red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar is a good choice for salad dressings and pickling when you don't want to change the color of the ingredients. It's the vinegar of choice for slaws, too.

Champagne vinegar

This is the lightest of the wine vinegars, although it can still produce a pucker. It's best used as a finishing vinegar, not a cooking vinegar. Use it to dress a salad of delicate ingredients, or to add balance to chicken or pork dishes.

Sherry vinegar

This Spanish vinegar is made by fermenting a fortified wine, then aging it in oak barrels. More complex than wine-based vinegars, its distinctive flavor works well in assertive salad dressings, to flavor gazpacho, acidify soups or deglaze a pan. Use it in place of balsamico in a caprese salad, or to make romesco, a Spanish sauce of roasted red peppers and toasted nuts.

Rice vinegar

Usually produced in China or Japan, this more delicate, less acidic vinegar is made by fermenting rice. It's a natural addition to stir-fries, Asian-accented salads, slaws, noodles and soups. People who don't care for the more sour varieties of vinegar may get on with this one. Go for a plain rice vinegar; the seasoned varieties can add off-notes to your dish.

Black vinegar (aka Chinkiang vinegar)

Made from glutinous rice or sorghum, this sour and smoky vinegar is used to balance the sweet ingredients in Chinese dishes. In the U.S, it's primarily used as a dipping sauce for dumplings or as a marinade for meats.

Malt vinegar

Made from barley that is turned into beer before being fermented into vinegar, malt vinegar is more mellow and savory than wine vinegars. The most popular vinegar in the United Kingdom, it's the perfect partner to a plate of fish and chips and a good addition to a pan of beans.

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