Getting to Know: Vinegars
More than just the yin to oil’s yang in salad dressing, vinegar can help shape a perfect poached egg and save many a dish from terminal blandness.
Distilled White Vinegar
Buy a big jug of this neutral-tasting vinegar; you’ll be turning to it for more than cooking. Made from grain alcohol that’s distilled to produce a colorless liquid with high acidity, this kitchen stalwart doubles as a cleaning agent: Put some in a spray bottle and use it to wash wax, dirt, and chemicals from fruits and vegetables. Add a few tablespoons of vinegar to the water for eggs as they poach to keep the whites from threading.
Red Wine Vinegar
Red wine usually becomes vinegar in one of two ways: A blob of cellulose and bacteria called a “mother” is added to wine to convert alcohol into acid, or wine and bacteria are combined in a machine that “aerates” them to feed the bacteria. Our favorite, Laurent du Clos Red Wine Vinegar, has a “clean, light, pleasant taste,” according to our tasters, and a subtle sharpness that goes well in vinaigrettes.
White Wine Vinegar
Crisp and acidic, with “subtle sweetness” and “lemony” flavors, white wine vinegar is what we use to brighten pan sauces for chicken and fish. We also turn to it in potato salad: Tossing hot potatoes in white wine vinegar is how we infuse our Dill Potato Salad with deep flavor (see related content). Our favorites are Colavita Aged White Wine Vinegar and Spectrum Naturals Organic White Wine Vinegar.
Fruity and balanced, apple cider vinegar has been popular in the United States since colonial times; this vinegar is made from hard apple cider, a popular drink in that era. We use it every day in the test kitchen. Our favorite is Spectrum Naturals Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, Unfiltered; that it’s unfiltered contributes to its “distinct apple flavor” and gives it an “assertive, tangy” quality.
Traditional balsamic vinegar from Italy’s Modena and Emilia-Romagna regions is aged in wooden barrels for years until the vinegar is sweet, syrupy, and expensive— up to $60 per ounce. Many cheaper versions bypass the aging and instead add colors or sweeteners; the price tag is lower but so is the quality. Our favorite supermarket balsamic vinegar—Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico—contains no added sugars or colors. We like its “great complexity” and subtle acidity.
Sherry vinegar is made from sherry, a fortified wine. True Vinagre de Jerez, made in a small area of Spain, is aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Many sherry vinegars stocked in supermarkets are lesser-quality knockoffs. Sherry vinegar’s flavors are “warm” and “toasty,” with a “brown-sugary” sweetness. Use it to brighten pan sauces or to echo Spanish flavors in our Roasted Cauliflower with Paprika and Chorizo (see related content).
Made from fermented malted barley— basically, unhopped beer—malt is a bit aggressive for most vinaigrettes. But when it comes to cutting through the oil of fried fish and chips and adding an intense, flavorful punch, there’s nothing like it. We love its “savory,” “beefy” flavor in our Roasted Salt-and-Vinegar Potatoes (see related content), but it’s not just for spuds. It’s also the foundation of many chutneys and sauces.
Primarily used to season sushi rice, rice vinegar plays a role in stir-fries and satays, too. It’s also called rice wine vinegar, but don’t confuse it with rice wine. Rice vinegar is made from steamed rice that’s blended with yeast and fermented into alcohol before being aerated to form vinegar. This vinegar has a characteristic “malty” sweetness and mild acidity. You can buy it seasoned or unseasoned; we prefer unseasoned because it’s more versatile.
Chinese Black Vinegar
Originating in China’s Zhejiang province, black vinegar is made from sorghum, wheat, rice, or millet—sometimes in combination—and aged to develop its complex flavor. The flavors are hard to pin down, but our tasters suggested “woodsy” and “earthy,” with hints of “warm spice” and herbs like tarragon. Balsamic or malt vinegars are good substitutes, though both lack black vinegar’s complexity. Use black vinegar in dipping sauces and for braising meat.
This vinegar is made from the fermented juice of champagne grapes before second fermentation (the cause of the bubbles) occurs. The resulting vinegar has a “clean,” “mineral-y” flavor that’s usually more delicate than that of white wine vinegar (although our tasters had a hard time telling the difference). Champagne vinegar’s light body and crispness make it a good base for fruit and herb vinegars. Splash it on vegetables or mix it with shallots in a mignonette sauce for oysters.
Raspberry vinegar has all but vanished from the cupboards of culinary trendsetters, but we think that the pairing of sweet fruit with acidic vinegar is timeless. True fruit vinegars are made by fermenting fruit juice into wine and then letting it mingle with acid. Some fruit-flavored vinegars take a shortcut, infusing red wine, white wine, or champagne vinegars with macerated fruit or fruit purees. Use fruit vinegars in vinaigrettes or drizzled over grilled fruit.
Unlike the other vinegars in this roundup, herb vinegars are infusions. Highly aromatic herbs like tarragon, sage, rosemary, or basil are added to warm (but not boiling) light-flavored vinegars, which are then set aside to steep for three to four weeks before the herbs are discarded. Figure on infusing every 2 cups of vinegar with about 1 cup of fresh herbs. Herb vinegars can add a fresh flavor to salad dressings and marinades and are a great way to use up extra herbs.