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A Splash of Thrifty Vinegar: Explanation of Vinegar Types

By Vicki McClure Davidson

Every frugal kitchen needs to be stocked with several vinegars. They are inexpensive and more versatile than just about any other food-enhancing item in your pantry.

Vinegar's been used for centuries for cooking, tenderizing, flavoring, and preserving foods. Salt-free and natural, vinegar can be used in so many ways that it's mind-boggling. It can even be used as natural health treatments and to clean non-chemically around the house. Vinegars are used through out the world and their flavors embody the cuisines of the land. Most have less than 3 calories per tablespoon and no fat. While it can be made at home, it is a precise, ancient science and difficult to achieve the correct acidity. So, considering how inexpensive bottled vinegars are to buy, we don't recommend that anyone try to make their own at home. But you can always give it a go, if you want.

Vinegar, often coupled with olive oil, can be used to frugally enhance or tenderize foods used in countless dishes. | Photo credit: Kerry A. Adamo
Vinegar, often coupled with olive oil, can be used to enhance hundreds of dishes. | Photo credit: Kerry A. Adamo

Vinegar has a long and fascinating history. The French called it vin aigre, meaning "sour wine." Around 5,000 BC, the Babylonians used it as a preservative and as a condiment, and they were they first to flavor it with herbs and spices. Long before current-day commercialization, in 2000 BC, vinegar became one of the first commercial industries and many ancient people stopped making it at home, preferring to buy it instead. Queen Cleopatra proved its solvent properties by dissolving precious pearls in it to win a wager that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. Roman legionnaires enjoyed drinking vinegar. It was used during the Civil War to treat scurvy and World War I medics used it to treat wounds. Before the explosion of the cosmetic industry in the early 20th century, women used it for centuries on their hair and skin for its clarifying and astringent properties.

You may already be familiar with some of the amazing attributes of vinegar. It can be used not only in cooking, but in cleaning, freshening, maintaining health, in the garden, for pets. But what type of vinegars should you have on hand for cooking? Which vinegars are better when used with meats or with vegetables? They all have unique characteristics.

I keep about five different types of vinegar in my cupboard and use them all, but with different frequency and for different dishes. So much depends on what you're preparing and your personal taste.

Although fermented wine is a common base, vinegar can be made from anything that ferments, such as grains, fruits, molasses, cider, and beer.

Vinegars will keep almost indefinitely if unopened and kept in a dark, cool place. Once the bottle is opened, a vinegar will keep its flavor for at least three months, with cider vinegar lasting the longest—up to six months. It's important to keep all vinegars tightly sealed after opening.

Here is a breakdown of each type of vinegar and how it can be used.

Distilled Vinegars

Distilled vinegars are made from grains such as corn, barley, and rye, and have the strongest, harshest taste of all the vinegars. They are used primarily for pickling. White vinegar, one of the most common, falls into this category.

Malt Vinegars

Malt vinegar is a British favorite. It is made from ale and is a favorite in British pubs with the traditional order of fish and chips. It is also a common ingredient in various chutney sauces. Malt vinegar is a slightly sweeter vinegar than regular distilled vinegar. Its yeasty flavor combines well in salad dressing with neutral corn and peanut oils, or with robust nut and olive oils. It is aged for several months in oak barrels. The stronger-flavored dark malt vinegar (or brown malt vinegar) has caramel added. It has a much stronger flavor than the clear, distilled malt or light malt vinegars.

Sushi uses rice vinegar, which imparts flavor and helps keep the rice sticky to hold it together. | Photo credit: Lisa F. Young, DreamsTimeFree
Sushi uses rice vinegar, which imparts flavor and helps keep the rice sticky to hold it together. | Photo credit: Lisa F. Young, DreamsTimeFree

Rice Vinegars

Rice vinegars originated in China and Japan. They have a sharp, clean taste that is somewhat mellower than that of distilled white vinegar. This milder cousin of distilled vinegar is used in salads. Combined with a dash of sesame oil and mixed with shredded green cabbage and spiced with hot chiles is a delicious Asian lunch. A small amount of rice vinegar is added to rice being used to prepare sushi.

Cider Vinegars

Cider vinegar is tart, brown-colored vinegar that is made from apples (sometimes it is labeled "apple cider vinegar"). It is flavorful and a good choice when dressing salads or sprinkled on smoked fish or meat. The vinegar's fruitiness increases when it is cooked, so it is excellent with Indian curries, stews, and when slow-cooked with tough cuts of meat. It is also used as an effective mouthwash, a skin soother, and a gastric-problem reliever. People who have an allergy to apples should avoid apple cider vinegar. Be aware that apple cider vinegar drinks can cause tooth enamel damage if sipped frequently.

Wine Vinegars

Wine vinegars are made from fermented red and white wines, Champagne, or sherry. These are the mildest of the vinegars, and are used in salad dressings, sauces, marinades, and herb vinegars. Red wine vinegar is delicious in a mustardy vinaigrette on bitter lettuces or in an orange vinaigrette. Sherry vinegar is fuller and less acidic than the other wine vinegars. It is aged in wooden casks—the longer it is aged, the smoother it tastes. It can be combined with olive, walnut, hazelnut, or peanut oils to enhance its nutty taste. A dash of sherry vinegar can be added to a creamy sauce for seafood or chicken, or a creamy soup.

Balsamic Vinegars

Balsamic vinegar is unique to the area around Modena, Italy. It is a sweet-tart vinegar, a must-have in well-stocked frugal pantries. The flavor is intense (a little goes a long way). Balsamic vinegars are among the more expensive vinegars, largely because of the complication of the production and aging processes. It is made from the unfermented juice of the white Trebbiano grape. The juice is then boiled down to a sweet and intensely fruity syrup that is aged in large wood barrels—chestnut, cherry, mulberry, oak, and juniper. The finished vinegar must be aged for no less than six years. Balsamic vinegars that are 50 to even 100 years old are also sold, although at a steep price much like that of fine wines. Balsamic vinegar is perfect in salad vinaigrette, but can also be used to enhance the flavor of pork or chicken before baking. The Modena citizens enjoy an after dinner drink of it to help with digestion (digestif).

Pears are but one of the many fruits that are used to make fruit vinegars. | Photo credit: Dmitry Maslov, DreamsTimeFree
Pears are but one of the many fruits that are used to make fruit vinegars. | Photo credit: Dmitry Maslov, DreamsTimeFree

Fruit Vinegars

Fruit vinegars are made with good-quality white wine or cider vinegar and any of the following fruits: lemons, limes, raspberries, pears, blueberries, cranberries, oranges, peaches, or strawberries. The fruits may also be mixed with a few mild herbs. They are wonderful when used in a salad dressing with nut or olive oils or when used to marinade tough cuts of beef.

Herb Vinegars

Herb vinegars are good-quality wine or cider vinegars that have been infused with herbs. Some popular herbs that are used include basil, garlic, mint, rosemary, thyme, dill, oregano, savory, tarragon, or chervil. A bit of it drizzled on vegetables give them zest, and herb vinegars are excellent on bland lettuces, such as iceberg, for salads or on a sandwich. Mix a herb vinegar with a neutral oil, like salad or olive, so that the flavors don't clash.

Flavored Vinegar Preferences Around the World

Flavored vinegar preferences are decidedly regional. According to a 2005 Mintel Custom Solutions survey, the top five vinegar flavors in North America are cranberry, garlic, lemon, pepper, and raspberry.

In Europe, the top five vinegar flavors are shallot, apple, tomato, fig, and garlic.

In Asia Pacific, they are apple, honey, grape, aloe vera, and Champagne.

In Latin America, the favorites are apple, herbs, tarragon, basil, and fruit.

And, in the Middle East and Africa, the favorite vinegars are apple, blueberry, and fig (only the top three were listed).

Information Resources, Inc. gathered US data that showed that more vinegar is sold in the Northeast, Southeast, and the Great Lakes area compared to the remainder of the United States. Among white distilled vinegar users, the South has the most heavy users (48 percent) and the West has the most non-users (20 percent). Heavy users use vinegar at least once per month.

Another study showed that 33 million Americans are clueless about the uses of distilled white vinegar, and had not purchased or used it in the previous year.



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