Vinegars — so many to choose from

Vinegars are certainly a pantry staple that are used in many different applications. Just as with so many things today, we are often faced with a myriad of choices. Looking at the vinegar shelf at your local supermarket, it can be overwhelming. In this Cooking Tip, let’s delve into this world of vinegars and which ones deserve a space in your pantry. I want to start with some general information about vinegar followed by an explanation of the types of vinegar and ending with recommendations for what to keep in your pantry.

Vinegar is made by turning fermented liquid into acetic acid by adding certain bacteria to the liquid. Acetic acid is important for a couple reasons. As it is a very potent antimicrobial agent, it is a very effective preservative. Acetic acid also contributes two flavor elements to food – an acidic/sour taste and a pungent aroma.

How acidic or tart it tastes depends on the strength, which is defined by the percent of acetic acid. The FDA says it must be at least 4% to be called vinegar. In the US, most industrially produced vinegars are adjusted to 5% acetic acid. Some wine vinegars may by 7% or higher. Mild rice vinegars may be only 4%. Balsamic vinegar is usually about 6% but could be up to 8%. In my supermarket, most of the bottles had the strength listed somewhere on the label.

The Vinegar Institute conducted studies about vinegar’s shelf life and confirmed that it is almost indefinite. According to them, “vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. White distilled vinegar will remain virtually unchanged over an extended period of time. And, while some changes can be observed in other types of vinegars, such as color changes or the development of a haze or sediment, this is only an aesthetic change. The product can still be used and enjoyed with confidence.” If you do not like the sediment, you may strain it out.

Red wine vinegar

  • Made from red wine
  • Flavor
    • Very tart with significant grape flavor
    • Hot and robust
  • Uses
    • Marinades for red meat
    • Stirred into hearty stews
    • Tangy vinaigrettes

White wine vinegar

  • Made from white wine
  • Flavor
    • Lighter and more delicate in flavor than red wine vinegar
  • Uses
    • Light pan sauces
    • Marinating poultry
    • A lighter vinaigrette

Champagne vinegar

  • Made from the fermented juice of champagne grapes
  • Flavor
    • More delicate than white wine vinegar but most tasters cannot tell the difference
    • Lighter and less acidic than other wine vinegars
    • Light body, crisp
  • Uses
    • Good base for fruit and herb vinegars
    • Light vinaigrettes

Cider vinegar

  • Made from a base of yeast-fermented apple cider
    • Comes filtered or unfiltered. Filtered has had the cloudy sediment of the “mother” (bacteria from an established vinegar) removed. Cooks Illustrated tasters thought the unfiltered was more complex when tasted from the bottle. This preference continued in light pan sauces but the differences were minimal in stronger preparations such as BBQ sauce.
  • Flavor
    • Medium sharp vinegar with a very fruity quality
    • Tastes like hard apple cider
    • Mellow and slightly sweet
  • Uses
    • Use as wine vinegars but especially in salads with apples, pork marinades and braised pork dishes
    • Glazes, slaws, sauces

Fruit vinegar

  • These are made in one of two ways.
    • Many are just ordinary vinegars that are infused with macerated fruit or fruit purees.
    • True fruit vinegars are made by fermenting fruit juice into wine and then letting it mingle with acid.
  • Flavor – dependent on the fruit
  • Uses
    • Fruity vinaigrettes
    • Drizzle over grilled fruit

Malt vinegar

  • A dark colored vinegar made from ale (cereal grains, sprouted barley)
  • Flavor
    • Mellower than many vinegars
    • Nutty and toasty
  • Uses
    • Fish/chips
    • Potato dishes

Rice vinegar

  • Made from fermented rice, aka rice wine
    • Same as rice wine vinegar, but NOT rice wine
    • Comes seasoned (added salt/sugar) and unseasoned
  • Flavor
    • Prominent in Asian cuisines and is slightly different depending on where it is made
    • Mild, barely sweet flavor
  • Uses
    • Since this is the least sharp vinegar, it is very versatile
    • The seasoned variety is used for seasoning sushi rice, but the unseasoned variety is used for most other purposes.
    • Marinades, seasoning cooked veggies, dressing salads

Distilled white vinegar

  • In the US, this is made from grain alcohol (ethyl alcohol) and is among the purest form of acetic acid.
  • Flavor
    • This is the cleanest, sharpest and cheapest vinegar.
    • It is flavorless except for the acidity.
  • Uses
    • Great for cleaning
    • Pickling veggies
    • Not recommended for other culinary uses

Balsamic vinegar

Balsamic vinegar could be an entire Cooking Tip on its own. I am going to greatly simplify it for the purposes of this Vinegar Tip. There are different types of balsamic vinegar ranging from the very expensive, traditionally-made balsamic to what we call “imitation balsamics”.

The traditional is made only from grape musts, which are freshly crushed grapes. It is cooked down to a syrup and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years. It is very dark, thick, sweet and meant to be more of a condiment than a cooking ingredient.

Supermarket balsamics are made from grape must and wine vinegar. These are meant for everyday use. Although it may have a nice taste, it will not be as complex as the traditional product. If the first ingredient listed is the vinegar, it will be more on the tart side. If grape must is the first ingredient, it will be mellower and sweeter. If “grape must” is not listed as an ingredient, it will be a much lower-end product.

Cooks Illustrated recommends a “hack” to improve the flavor of a cheaper balsamic. Combine 1/3 cup balsamic, 1 Tbsp sugar and 1 Tbsp port in saucepan and simmer until reduced by half. In a taste test, most could not tell the difference between this and the high-end balsamic vinegar.

White Balsamic

  • This is a milder version of red balsamic. It is created by cooking white Trebbiano grapes, at a higher pressure and lower temperature. This prevents caramelization and allows the vinegar to retain a pale, golden color.
  • While similar to red balsamic, white balsamic is milder and less-sweet. It also does not impart color to the dish.

Sherry vinegar

  • Made from sherry wine although the grapes may differ, giving a different flavor profile. All sherry vinegar is fermented in oak barrels for at least 6 months, Reserva is aged for 2 years and Gran Reserva for a minimum of 10.
  • Flavor
    • Acetic acid concentration can reach 10%.
    • The flavor is warm, toasty, nutty and less sweet than balsamic.
  • Uses – It is great for pan sauces and Spanish dishes.

Herb vinegar

These are actually infusions. Highly aromatic herbs like tarragon, sage, rosemary or basil are added to light-flavored vinegars and set aside to steep for 3-4 weeks before discarding the herbs. They add fresh flavor to salad dressings and marinades.

What you keep in your pantry somewhat depends on your taste and cooking style. However, you will want, at a minimum, the following multi-purpose vinegars.

  • Wine vinegar – red and/or white
  • Cider vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar

You may want to consider a good balsamic and possibly a sherry vinegar, as there are really no substitutes for these.

The remainder of the vinegars are fine to have in your pantry but are not necessary and either can be replaced by one of the multi-purpose vinegars or have a very limited use.

What vinegars do you have in your pantry? Which ones do you use the most? Some of the specialty vinegars are fun to play with but you certainly do not need them.