Vinegar 101

Vinegar [from the old French vin aigre, meaning, literally, sour wine] is “an alcoholic liquid that has been allowed to sour.” Vinegar has a wide variety of uses, but cooks use it most often to add flavor to dishes, to preserve [or “pickle”] foods, and as an ingredient in salad dressings and marinades.

Where Does Vinegar Come From?

If you like to dazzle your captives — er, dinner guests — with your vast scientific knowledge, you can tell them that vinegar is produced by the fermentation of alcohol [or cider or fruit juice]. Vinegar’s fermentation is the result of acetobacters [acetic acid bacteria; also, aceto = vinegar in Italian], which are microscopic bacteria that live on oxygen bubbles.  It works like this: whereas the fermentation of grapes [in wine] or hops [in beer] happens in a sealed keg or barrel, in the absence of oxygen, the process of making vinegars relies on the presence of oxygen. For this reason, vinegar is produced in open vats, or loosely-fastened fermenting barrels.

For extra credit, you can memorize the chemical reaction for producing vinegar, which is as follows: CH3CH2OH=2HCH3CHO=CH3COOH.

Who would ever have guessed that fermented ethanol would 1) be so tasty; 2) be so useful in such a variety of cooking tasks; and 3) take so many guises?

Vinegar is made from all sorts of fermentable foods, most notably wine, champagne, beer, apple cider and rice. Balsamic vinegar, of which we sell over a dozen varieties, is made from the concentrated juice, or must, of Trebbiano grapes. In other parts of the world, people enjoy vinegars made from sources as diverse as kiwifruit, coconut, cane sugar, and even yeasty Kombucha[!].

What Can I Cook With Vinegar?

Vinegar is used in a wide variety of ways in the kitchen:

  • White vinegar can be used as flavoring in ham and beans
  • Vinegar is used as a condiment for fish and chips, and as a flavoring for “Vinegar and Sea Salt” flavor potato chips [mmm, my favorite!].
  • A dash of vinegar flavors cooked vegetables “in the Southern style,” such as collard greens, green beans, black-eyed peas, or cabbage to taste.
  • Vinegar makes a quick substitute for fresh lemon juice.
  • Any vinegar can be used to pickle foods; before refrigeration, vinegar and pickling was a chief way of preserving foods. And don’t limit yourself to the storebought dill-or-sweet-cucumber pickle! Use a flavored vinegar, like our Jalapeno Balsamic, to make a quick batch of pickled veggies, using this recipe.
  • Low-sodium alternatives: Instead of salt, use vinegar as a seasoning for foods such as potatoes or other vegetables. Just sprinkle on lightly.
  • Buttermilk: when buttermilk is called for in your recipe, but you have none, stir 1 tablespoon of vinegar into 1 cup of whole milk, and let it stand a few minutes.
  • Vinegar is sometimes even used in dessert! There is such a thing as “vinegar pie,” which is a variant on my Grandpa Mac’s favorite, Chess Pie. A fine balsamic, such as Dark Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar, or one of the fruit balsamics such as Black Cherry Balsamic Vinegar, drizzled over a fruit, cheese, custard or chocolate dessert is surprising and delicious.
  • Use vinegar to create sauces and marinades for meats and main dishes. The acid content and tangy flavor of vinegar makes it an excellent ingredient in a marinade for meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables. Here’s a recipe for a marinade for beef, and a marinade for chicken. Vinegar can also tenderize tough cuts of meat.
  • Eggs: to hard-boil an egg that has cracked, add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the boiling water. The vinegar will prevent the egg white from running out.
  • Enhance flavors in a tomato sauce or a tomato-based soup with a tablespoon of vinegar, added at the very end of the cooking process.
  • And, of course, the tried-and-true use of vinegar is to create a tasty vinaigrette to dress fruit, vegetables, or a salad. Some suggestions to get you started: Fool-proof Vinagrette, Creamy Vinaigrette, Garlic Balsamic Vinaigrette, or Walnut Basil Salad Dressing.

Vinegar is an ancient and versatile staple in your pantry. Try some of the wide variety of vinegars in our store, perhaps in a four-pack of 5oz. bottles, and see how a fruity Blackberry-Ginger Balsamic differs from a Pinot Noir Red Wine Vinegar, from a Champagne White Vinegar. Just as different kinds of wine or beer pair well with different entrees and desserts, so it goes with a fine vinegar.

Crazy About Vinegar?

At AllSpice, we certainly are partial to the stuff. It’s one of the reasons we got into the spice business — so that we could have easy access to the many varieties of vinegars out there in the world, and share them with our friends. For the really truly vinegar-crazed, you may want to mark your calendar and celebrate National Vinegar Day — every year on November 1.  If a single day isn’t enough, the Vinegar Institute [!] informs us that the entire month of May is National Vinegar Month.


Photo credit: “Vinegar Street,” by Mykal Shaw for Streats of London project.