Vinegar is the classic rock of condiments. You know it’s in the house, and you know it’s kinda timeless and it’ll keep for years, so you keep it on the pantry shelf behind all those indie-label spices and sauces. You rock it a few times a year when you’re doing some household cleaning, but you don’t think about it when you’re trying to get dinner on the table.
Vinegar is so deeply ingrained in our history and culture, and so formative of our palates, that it’s easy to overlook and underuse. Human beings have been using it for about 10,000 years. Hannibal used it to crumble rocks that blocked the progress of his elephants through the Alps. Cleopatra used it to dissolve a fortune in pearls to win a bet with Antony. Heck, Jesus Christ was given a spongeful of vinegar on the cross. And it’s in our language. ‘You catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar.’ And when some rowdy acts up, you don’t say he’s full of piss and tahini.
Indeed, vinegar is so big it fails—to catch your attention. The only exception to this rule is syrupy balsamic vinegar (not the good stuff below), which is lame the same way the Dave Matthews Band is lame[??]. Culinarily, vinegar is the flavor element that is inexorably linked to one of our primary taste concerns: acid level. Adjusting acid level is one of the most important things you can do to improve a dish because it informs the way the other primary tastes (bitter, salty, sweet and umami-y) present and interact. But because vinegar is so iconic in this role, we often fail to maintain a nuanced understanding of just how effective and useful it can be. Like how sometimes you forget that George Harrison is a really good guitarist. And it’s worth keeping in mind that, as an ingredient, vinegar is probably in the majority of condiments in your cupboard: mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayo, sriracha, et. al.
In the interest of counteracting our tendency to undervalue the classics, I’m spotlighting the particular qualities and uses of the small selection of vinegars that I use in the recipes below. These qualities are hard to describe, so I’ve paired each of the vinegar types below with a classic rock track that I hope will have a synergistically illustrative effect. Basically, I made you a mixed tape of distinctive vinegars and classic rock songs, along with kitchen tips/liner notes:
• White Balsamic—“Care Of Cell 44” by The Zombies: This vinegar is bright and juicy, coming in with a measure of psychedelic fruitiness up front, but with a pleasantly smooth, disciplined follow-through. Great in pasta sauces, in bean stews, and in marinades for grilling vegetables. What the Monkees should have been, really.
• Melfor Alsatian Vinegar—“Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp (click there for a very heartwarming tap-dance school version of the song): This is actually a blend of spirit vinegar and infusion of honey and herbs that delivers low acidity in a medium-light bodied package. Complex but integrated, with melodious notes of caramel and coconut water, it’s best used in vinaigrettes, noodle broths, meaty stews and claypots. It handles a lot like rice vinegar, but with a breezy, Wurlitzer buzz.
• Champagne Vinegar—“Killer Queen by Queen: Straightforwardly crisp and balanced. The most flexible of vinegars, again a natural in vinaigrettes; use it, too, in soups and for dressing vegetables. It’s a trouper, a splash of whimsical dandiness and bourgeois elegance for your table, old chum.
• Sherry Vinegar—“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan: Darker and more pungent, this vinegar boasts a full-bodied richness that goes well with umami-ful ingredients. It’s an ideal deglazing agent for pan sauces and would provide added depth to gravies and cream soups. Textured and atmospheric; incredible virtuosity and precision laid down atop a wash of moral fatigue.
1 ½ lbs. Chicken thighs, bone-in with skin
½ tsp. toasted sesame oil
½ tsp. peanut oil
⅔ cup white balsamic vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup of chicken stock
3 medium shallots, sliced very thinly crosswise and separated into rings
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 large bay leaves
1 tsp. black peppercorns
additional ½ tsp. toasted sesame oil
additional ½ tsp. peanut oil
Heat both oils together in bottom of a large saucepan or small Dutch oven (you want a pan in which the chicken thighs will form a single layer along the bottom) over medium high heat. When oil gets fragrant and shimmery, lay thighs skinside-down; brown for about a minute or until you notice a small amount of fat from the chicken skin has rendered. Add the rest of the ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 25 minutes.
Remove chicken and set aside to cool. In the meantime continue simmering sauce uncovered, and begin heating a cast iron skillet over a second burner at high heat. Remove and discard skin from chicken. Add sesame and peanut oil to skillet and proceed to brown now-skinless chicken. Just about a minute on each side while mashing the thighs around with tongs. This mashing action will squeeze out some of the braising liquid which will evaporate and provide a little smoky caramelization on the surface of the chicken. Return chicken to saucepan or Dutch oven and turn off both burners. Deglaze skillet with a ladleful of the sauce, scraping up the bits. Pour contents of skillet back into the pan with the chicken and sauce, give it a good stir. Serve with steamed rice.
RED KALE SALAD
1 bunch red kale
2 tbs. dried cranberries
2 tbs sunflower seeds
1 small red pepper
Toast hazelnuts in a skillet over medium heat with occasional shaking and tossing. You want them to toast uniformly, until they’re very fragrant, just short the point where the skins are totally charred. Set aside to cool.
Remove and discard central stem from kale. Chop kale leaves into bite-sized salad pieces. Chop pepper into ⅛-inch matchsticks. Crumble skins off cooled hazelnuts and cut into thirds. Combine everything in a salad bowl and dress with AlsAsian vinaigrette just before serving.
2 tbs. Melfor Alsatian Honey Vinegar
2 tbs. mirin
½ tsp. Chinese hot mustard
½ tsp. peanut oil
½ tsp. toasted sesame oil
¼ tsp. soy sauce
¼ tsp. toasted sesame seeds
Whisk all ingredients into a smooth emulsion in a small bowl.
PERSIAN CUCUMBER AND RADISH INSTANT-PICKLES WITH CHIVES
6-7 Persian cucumbers
½ cup champagne vinegar
½ cup water
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup of chives
additional ¼ cup vinegar for topping off
Cut ends off cucumbers and discard. Slice cucumbers thinly, into quarter-sized rounds. Cut radishes in same manner, but more thinly, dime-sized rounds. Chop chives as you would for dressing a baked potato.
Combine vinegar, water and sugar in a medium bowl, whisking until sugar dissolves. Add vegetables and chives to bowl, tossing thoroughly with clean hands.
Put the mixture into appropriately sized jar(s) and top off with additional vinegar. Seal jars and shake to incorporate. Store in refrigerator. Pickles should be good to eat in a few hours, but will improve over the next few days. You can keep them in the fridge for couple of weeks.
SHERRY VINEGAR SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS WITH PARSLEY AND SAGE
⅔ lb. shiitake mushrooms
1 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
3 tbs. water
additional tsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic sliced thin
3 tbs. sherry vinegar
1 tbs. chopped sage
2 tbs. chopped parsley leaves
additional tsp. olive oil for drizzling
Remove stems completely from mushroom tops with your hands. Cut tops into ¼-inch slices. Heat oil to shimmering in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. Saute mushrooms for about 2 minutes. Add water and cover for about a minute. Remove cover and continue sauteing until mushrooms are just cooked through. Set shiitakes aside.
In your still-hot skillet reduce heat to medium and heat additional tsp. olive oil. Add sliced garlic and saute until slightly golden, about a minute. Return mushrooms to skillet and add vinegar, quickly and thoroughly combining contents of skillet. Shut off heat and stir in sage, then parsley. Drizzle with olive oil and salt to taste.
Previously: Gochujang, Habanero Salsa , Pomegranate Molasses and Fish Sauce
Ben Choi lives in the SF Bay Area with his wife Erica and dog Spock.