“Vinegar,” from the French “vin aigre,” means “sour wine”: aptly named. Its origins go back more than 10,000 years ago, likely with wine going past its prime.
Then and now, vinegar comes from fermentation. Friendly bacteria ferment natural sugars in fruit, grains, or other ingredients, first turning sugar to alcohol, then to acetic acid. The result? A versatile new product with many compounds, not simply this sour-tasting acid.
With unique flavor qualities, culinary vinegars have been condiments, flavorings and preservatives for centuries!
Vinegar: Beyond Salad Dressing!
Vinegar in recipes? Vinaigrette for a garden salad, or vinegar to pickle and preserve, comes to mind. But vinegar has many culinary uses:
- Brighten flavor. Being slightly acidic, a splash of flavored or wine vinegar sparks flavor in nearly any dish, including soups, sauces and gravies. Mild to bold, even sweet, try different vinegars for different flavors.
- Tenderize tough meat or game with vinegar-based marinades. Go 50-50: half vinegar and half juice, broth or other liquid. Do the same with vinegar-and-oil rubs. Again, vinegar’s acid gets the credit!
- Keep potatoes white. Soak uncooked peeled potatoes, covered, in cold water with 2 teaspoons of vinegar. Or measure 1 teaspoon of vinegar into cooking water for potatoes. Acid stops the browning process.
- Freshen slightly-wilted veggies with a “soak” of cold water and vinegar. A mild vinegar “wash” (2 tablespoons distilled vinegar to 1 pint water) helps kill bacteria on fresh produce, too: rinse well.
- Keep delicate fish firmer. For any cooking method, soak uncooked fish in water with a little vinegar for a sweeter taste, tenderness and a firmer texture. For poaching, add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to cooking water.
- Extend your “mayo” or salad dressing. Add a few drops of vinegar to an essentially empty jar of dressing. Cover well; shake for enough to dress another salad!
Specialty Vinegars: Experiment!
Like wine, different vinegars have distinct personalities and impart different flavors:
- Balsamic vinegars. Made from Trebbiano grapes, balsamic vinegar is heated to concentrate flavor, then aged to develop a deep color and rich, sweet flavor. Sweet, bold balsamic vinegar tossed with fresh fruit (berries, peaches, melon) or over roasted veggies is perfect! Or use it in your favorite salad dressing, perhaps in Penne and Smoked Salmon Pasta Salad or Chicken Caprese Salad. White balsamic vinegar is lighter in color and flavor because it’s heated differently so it doesn’t caramelize; it’s not aged as long either.
Penne Smoked Salmon Pasta Salad
- Fruit vinegars. Fruit vinegars may be made with fruit in balsamic or wine vinegars. Enjoy the faint apple flavor of cider vinegar (from fermented apple cider) in Blackberry Ginger Pasta Salad. Or try the sweet-sour vinegars from berries, cranberries, pomegranate, citrus peels or other fruit. They’re perfect for salads with fresh, canned or dried fruit, and nut oils.
Blackberry Ginger Pasta Salad
- Herb vinegars. Made by steeping fresh herbs or spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg) in warm vinegar, as in making tea, they infuse vinegar with aromatic flavors. Try basil, garlic or tarragon vinegars. Or infuse your own perhaps with fresh garden herbs, fennel seed or ginger; check online for reliable advice (such as http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09340.html) for how-tos and storage.
Thai Peanut Pasta with Shrimp
Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RDN, CFCS is author of the American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, with more ways to infuse flavor in your nourishing meals.