When I was a kid I used to get yelled at for sucking on lemons. “IT’LL ROT THE ENAMEL OFF YOUR TEETH!” my mom would say. (A cursory Google search indicates that she was right and it’s totally possible that my teeth are enamel-free stumps at this point.) I have always had an affection for sour things; I prefer the sour candies to the sweet, and to this day my vinaigrettes are much more sour than a properly trained cook would make. While my love of sour citrus has not waned, it has been joined by a deep fascination with another souring agent: vinegar.
Vinegar is typically made by allowing the natural bacteria in various alcohols (wine, cider, sake) to spew out acetic acid over long periods of time. It is an ancient, mystical liquid, and it is one of the basic building blocks to making good food.
The key to all of my favorite cuisines is balance: the right amount of sweet, sour, spice, fat, salt, and umami. Foods that you wouldn’t think have more than one or two of those flavors become much more delicious when you start adding others. Take applesauce, for example. Seems like it shouldn’t be much more than sweet, right? But my favorite applesauce has all of those flavors: honey and the apples for sweetness, sure, but also butter for fat, more salt than you’d think, cinnamon or allspice or clove for spice, and apple cider vinegar for sourness. It doesn’t taste salty or sour but fuller, more flavorful, more restaurant-y. It’s better because you’re boosting the flavor by adding little hits of supporting fundamental seasonings.
I always have at least a half-dozen types of vinegar on hand. There’s no reason not to; vinegars are usually pretty cheap, and they never really go bad. (They might, after a few months or a year, develop a little cloudiness or sediment; this may look sort of gross, but does not affect the flavor at all, nor does it make the vinegar unsafe to use.) Here is a rundown of common vinegars and when to use them.
Wine Vinegar: The cheap stuff will usually come in either “red” or “white” varieties; more expensive kinds will say the varietal of grape, just like wine does. I do not recommend buying wine vinegar at all, but that’s not because I don’t like it: It’s ridiculously easy to make, and homemade wine vinegar is CRAZY DELICIOUS. That said, I sometimes have the cheap stuff on hand. Red wine vinegar matches especially well with sweeter citrus, like orange or grapefruit or pomelo, in vinaigrettes. White wine vinegar is ideal for boosting the flavors of creamy pale things; it’s my go-to vinegar for egg salad, for example.
White Vinegar: I love plain, no-nonsense Goya brand white vinegar. It’s one of my most commonly used vinegars simply because it has no added flavor besides “sour,” so if I’m experimenting and know that a dish needs something sour but I’m not sure what flavors will work with it, bam, white vinegar. It’s also usually the cheapest, so it’s great for preparations that require a lot of vinegar, like pickling.
Apple Cider Vinegar: My second favorite. I buy the Bragg brand, because it’s unfiltered — it doesn’t necessarily taste all that different from Goya’s cheapo stuff, but it’s the cheapest way to get unfiltered vinegar, which you can use in the making of your homemade wine vinegar (more on that later). Cider vinegar is way more flexible than you’d think; it’s a touch sweeter than white vinegar but nowhere near as sweet as, say, balsamic, which makes it great for everything from vinaigrettes to pickles. It also is the best vinegar to use in desserts, due to its slight fruitiness. I especially like it with Southwest flavors — cumin, chile, corn, black beans, that kind of thing. Weirdly works as a substitute for lemon or lime juice in a lot of cases.
Balsamic Vinegar: Very nineties, but still has its uses. Balsamic comes in two types: incredibly cheap and incredibly expensive. The expensive stuff is thick and sweet and rich and comes in tiny delicate bottles and is used as a sauce by itself, not to be mixed with other ingredients. It’s very good and I never ever have it because it costs like fifty dollars a bottle and, like, come on. Cheap balsamic vinegar tastes like the suburbs. It’s made by mixing grape juice with some stronger, plain vinegars, to taste like a faint echo of the real stuff. It’s sort of thin and sweet and uncool these days, I think, but every once in awhile I want a god damn Greek salad with romaine and kalamata olives and feta and cucumbers and tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette, so I’m pretty sure there’s a bottle of garbage “aceto balsamico di Modena” (this means “cheap shit” even though it’s in a foreign language) in my cabinet.
Rice Vinegar: Rice vinegar, along with white and cider, is the variety that I always, always have on hand, because it’s just so versatile. It comes in a few different types. Standard rice vinegar is very similar to white vinegar, with hardly any extra flavor. Seasoned rice vinegar usually has some sugar in it, and is the kind I usually use; pretty much any stir-fry with Chinese or Japanese flavors gets a splash of seasoned rice vinegar near the end of cooking. And there are a couple rarer varieties, like red rice vinegar, which I’ve never used, and black rice vinegar, which is made from black glutinous rice and is INSANE. If you have access to a Chinese grocery store, go get some black rice vinegar; it has this kind of malty smoky flavor and makes some of the best vinaigrettes you’ve ever tried. Also it’s great by itself as a dipping sauce for dumplings.
Sherry Vinegar: One of the sweetest types of vinegar, sherry vinegar is typically pretty expensive but worth splurging on. It comes from Spain and unsurprisingly works well with Spanish dishes (try it with a vinegar-based potato salad!), but I like it to emphasize the sweetness in certain fruits and vegetables. If you’re sauteing, say, a bunch of bell peppers, a splash of sherry vinegar will bring out their sweetness without making them cloying. It’s also good with fruit, which makes it a great choice for both fruit salads and for fruit gastriques. Here is a good primer on gastriques.
Champagne Vinegar: Basically tastes like good white wine vinegar. It’s not, like, fizzy or anything.
Malt Vinegar: Made from malted barley, this is basically beer vinegar. It’s rarer here in the States than in, say, the UK and Canada, but it shouldn’t be, because it’s really very good! It’s much more mild than cider, white, or rice vinegar, and a little sweet and smoky as well. It makes a lovely vinaigrette but its best use is also its most common: sprinkled on top of french fries.
There are plenty of other vinegars, but you either won’t often see them or don’t really need to mess with them. Raspberry vinegar, for example, is gross as hell — sweet and perfume-y and bad. (If you want to make a raspberry vinaigrette, use a neutral vinegar like rice or white and mix it with raspberry juice.) Coconut vinegar is delicious but rare. Apparently New Zealand makes a kiwi vinegar which sounds very intriguing but I’ve never seen it in the wild, so.
One of the most important things to know about vinegar is that you can make your own, and that it is so easy to do that it doesn’t even really count as a recipe. Wine vinegar is the easiest to make, and the main ingredient is probably one that you have around anyway. Here’s how it works.
If you have some leftover wine, or a bottle of wine that you don’t really like much (for example, maybe you got talked into buying some Finger Lakes wine at the Grand Army Plaza farmers market, and thought, oh cool, local-ish wine, maybe it’ll be good, I mean, the grapes these guys grow are delicious so maybe their wine will be good too, and then you drank it and it was disgusting even to someone who knows nothing about wine, like just on a basic “this is not pleasant to imbibe” level), you’re pretty much set for ingredients. Pour the wine into a clean glass container of some sort. A mason jar is, unfortunately, perfect for this, even though a mason jar is typically the most irritating possible vessel for anything. Take a paper towel — or cloth, just nothing airtight — and put it over the top of the jar and secure it around the neck of the jar with a rubber band.
Put this jar in a cabinet or some other dark place. In a couple weeks, you’ll see some gross stuff floating on the surface of the wine. Do not disturb it; this is called the “mother.” Continue to do absolutely nothing to this jar of old wine for another couple months. The gross stuff will get grosser and then eventually sink to the bottom of the jar. Every few weeks, taste the old wine to see if it tastes like old wine. The best way to do this is with a straw; poke the straw through the gross shit and into the wine and put your finger over the exposed end of the straw to trap some of the wine in the straw, then lift it out and taste. It will taste like old wine for awhile, and then suddenly, it will taste like vinegar. REALLY GOOD vinegar. (You could also speed this process up by adding a touch of store-bought unfiltered vinegar that’s labeled “with mother” to your old wine. Bragg is probably your cheapest bet since it costs like six bucks and is both good vinegar and can be used to make more vinegar. Thanks, Bragg!) Anyway, when the old wine tastes like vinegar and not wine-y at all, you can filter out the gross stuff by pouring it through a sieve. Or, if you’ve used cheesecloth or a bit of cloth instead of a paper towel on the top of the jar, you can just turn the jar upside-down into a bowl and let the vinegar pour out, trapping the gross stuff in the jar.
This method (“method,” really, because this recipe is basically just “be disgusting and let your old wine rot for a few months”) works with any kind of wine. Champagne works, too, and is a great way to use old flat champagne instead of pouring it down the sink. And what a coincidence, we are now in the party season where everyone is drinking wine and champagne, and some of that wine and champagne will remain in half-full bottles in your house, and you will think gross, now I have to pour this down the sink. But wait! Don’t! Pour it into a glass jar instead and forget about it for a few months and you will have truly spectacular vinegar that would cost you literally dozens of dollars at your local specialty market, for free.
Most of being a good cook, I think, is learning how food should taste, and knowing how to adjust your food so it tastes that way. A good cook will be able to taste a soup or sauce, and if it doesn’t taste right, will know WHY it doesn’t taste right, and what it needs. Does it need a pat of butter or swirl of oil? Does it need a touch of sugar? A hit of cayenne? Often, what it needs will be a quick pour of vinegar. And if it’s vinegar you made yourself, well, that’s some pretty impressive cookery.
Photo by Mattie Hagedorn