Great tasting vinegar takes lots of care and time to create. Large industrial vinegar producers shorten the process of vinegar making from months and years to days and hours by adding chemicals like sulfuric acid, nitric acid and muriatic acid. Use those vinegars to spiffy up your pennies.
Traditionally made vinegars have none of that nonsense. They take a long time to mature and can’t compete on price with industrial models. The right vinegar can accentuate and transform cuisine. Here’s a primer:
You can’t create great vinegars from mediocre ingredients, and you can’t make wine vinegar without first making wine. Barrels are partially—but never fully—filled with wine, allowing air and bacteria to interact with the liquid. The bacteria converts the alcohol into water and acetic acid (vinegar) and the vinegar maker takes over from there, blending and aging the vinegar till the maker is happy with the flavor.
Flavors: bright, tangy, crisp
Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, deglaze pans, soups, sautes, pickling
Rice Wine Vinegar
Like wine vinegar production, except made from sake. Sake is made from fermented rice. The quality of the sake is related to how much the rice is “polished”—meaning the fats and proteins in the outer layers of the rice are removed. Most vinegar companies buy pre-made sake and convert it. The best make their own sake in order to make their own vinegar.
Flavors: mild, fruity, complex
Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, sushi, delicate foods
Like wine vinegar production, only with beer. Grain—in this case barley—is germinated in water, then dried in a roaster after it begins to sprout. The process converts the starch in the barley into sugar, which changes into alcohol when fermented the first time, and then into vinegar after it ferments again. The longer it ages, the smoother it gets.
Flavors: nutty, a little earthy, slightly sweet
Best uses: pickling, sprinkling as a condiment, marinades
Covering ripe fruit with water and letting it ferment creates fruit vinegar in a matter of weeks. One kind of bacteria converts the sugars into alcohol, then a different bacteria converts the alcohol into vinegar. Months or years of aging then round out the flavors. Quicker, more industrial production methods involve steeping fruit in white vinegar and “infusing” the fruit’s flavors into the vinegar. Infused, industrial fruit vinegars are sharp, borderline harsh, with only a whisper of the fruit flavor they claim.
Flavors: soft, sweet, fruity
Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, deglaze pans, mixers & mocktails
Traditionally, grape must—AKA grape juice before it’s wine—is cooked down to half its original volume then stored in large wooden casks with “mother” vinegar to kickstart fermentation. After a year or so the young vinegar is blended into smaller barrels that hold older balsamic where it ages for years before bottling. Today, though, most balsamic is made of mostly wine vinegar with a small percentage of grape must, and aged for only months. The modern, industrial ver-
sion is sweet but lacks the nuance and balance of a traditional aged balsamic.
Flavors: rich, sweet, flavors of dark fruits like raisins or plums
Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, finishing grilled meats, strawberries, ice cream
From southern Spain, the juice of Palomino grapes is converted first into wine, then fortified with grape brandy to make sherry. Sherry vinegar is then made with the solera method: similar to making balsamic, the sherry is placed in oak barrels with “mother” vinegar, then aged and blended in barrels for years before bottling.
Flavors: sweet, crisp, light
Best uses: vinaigrettes, sprinkled on seafood or roast vegetables, fruit salad