Drop Acid (Into Your Food) – A Guide To Vinegar

If you thought you knew everything there was to know about vinegar: think again. This comprehensive guide to the condiment will give you a whole new outlook.
Vinegar

Vinegar. A wildly underrated store cupboard staple. We've been making it, cooking with it, and even drinking it for centuries. We can all make it rain Sarson’s on our chips, but knowing the difference between a few of the main characters in the vinegar world can make any run of the mill recipe a banger.

What Is Vinegar?

To make vinegar you need three things: water, starch, and sugar. In simpler times, vinegar was made by allowing fruit, grains, or vegetables to ferment. This process produces alcohol compounds, including ethanol. One stop further down the fermentation train is vinegar. Hungry microorganisms eat the ethanol from the first fermentation and produce acetic acid (aka vinegar). Ever left a bottle of wine open for a bit too long and it starts to turn sour and, well, vinegary? The same process is at work. Historically, making vinegar took a very long time and with time comes complexity, flavour, and lip-smacking tang. Nowadays, we can speed things up, bringing affordable vinegar to the masses. Vinegar should be regarded as a flavour enhancer as well as a flavour and ingredient in its own right like salt, pepper, soy sauce, and fish sauce.

A few takeaways here – 1) If booze is being made, there’s probably a vinegar derived from that booze (sherry, champagne, red and white wine, etc). 2) Good vinegar takes time, and time is money, so spend an extra few quid on your vinegar if you can. If you’re willing to shell out on some bougie, grassy extra virgin, do the same for the sour stuff.

Vinegar vs Citrus

Have you ever thought – “a squeeze of lemon in this would really bang”? Sure you have, we all have. But sometimes you need a stronger, deeper acidity. The tart tang in lemon or lime juice is citric acid. Citric acid brings a fresh, fleeting acidity that fades quickly and diminishes with heat. The acetic acid found in vinegar is hardy, will withstand heat, and its bright character will endure a lot longer. Keep this in mind when picking what to use and when to use it.

So, who are the big hitters in the vinegar world, and when should you be using them?

White Vinegar

Clean, punchy, pure acidity.

The workhorse vinegar. Every man and his dog have a different use for it, from cleaning windows to scrubbing pans and softening fabric. White vinegar is unforgiving, it has zero sweetness and swings a punch of pure acidity. This sounds intimidating, but what white vinegar gives you is carte blanche. It’s a neutral platform upon which to build flavour. Reach for white vinegar if you’re after something bold. Add spices, herbs and other aromats to harness the uncompromising acidity for good. Balance out a sweet BBQ sauce, brighten up a fiery buffalo wing sauce or add a kick to quick pickles – it won’t let you down.

Wine Vinegar

Fruity, versatile, medium-high acidity.

Red and white wine vinegars are found in cupboards up and down the country. I bet you’ve got at least one in your kitchen right now. Fruit forward, but still packing a punch, they are brilliant flavour enhancers and will lift almost anything. The best way to pick which to use is to think of their origin. What wine would you drink with this recipe? Red or white? Red wine vinegar is the perfect base for a sharp, sour vinaigrette or marinade, a killer dressing to sweet, roasted peppers and a smart secret ingredient in a rich, meaty ragù. Reach for white wine when cooking gentler food – a drop in a light chicken soup or a creamy pasta sauce will work wonders.

Balsamic Vinegar

Sweet, intense, complex, medium acidity.

Balsamic is technically a wine vinegar, but to be branded as 100% legit balsamic it must meet some very strict requirements. It must be made in Modena out of one of a few specific grapes and be aged for a minimum of 12 years. Balsamic is super sweet and really shouldn’t be messed with too much: it’s good straight out the bottle, drizzled onto raw ingredients or finished dishes. Because of its high sugar content, balsamic makes a great glaze. Trickle it over some chicken thighs and roast in the oven for gnarly, sticky chicken or glaze a roasted peach to smash on a burrata.

Malt Vinegar

Rich, toasty and medium-high acidity.

The old guard, Britain’s finest. A stalwart of fish and chip shops nationwide. Malt vinegar is essentially made in the same way as beer. Grain is malted and fermented to make ale, and then undergoes a secondary fermentation to produce the vinegar we know and love. Drown any potato-based food in this stuff, and it’ll likely be fucking delicious.

Did You Know: Chinkiang vinegar aka Chinese black vinegar is a type of malted rice vinegar.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Fruit forward, medium sweetness, medium acidity.

ACV should be sweet, smell like ripe apples, and have a medium acidity. This vinegar is adored across the pond. ACV is similar in character to wine vinegars; both are fruity and will naturally guide your hand in the kitchen. Think “what is good with apples?” and you’re off to a good start. Include ACV in your next honey mustard dressing to bring another dimension of sweetness to the party, add a dash to a cabbage and apple slaw, or use it to season a BBQ pork shoulder.

Honourable Mentions

Sherry vinegar is my favourite of the bunch, my one and only. It’s like balsamic, in that it takes a long time to make and is super complex, but it has the versatility that balsamic lacks. I use it in everything. Salad dressings, braises, mayonnaise, gravy, you name it, I’ve lobbed sherry vinegar in it. Rice vinegar also warrants a shout out. Made of, you guessed it, fermented rice wine, it has an extremely clean flavour, a subtle sweetness and gentle acidity. It’s a great all-rounder.

Storage

So, we’ve established that having a bottle or three waiting in the wings is essential, but how can you ensure your vinegar stays better for longer? Elect a corner of a kitchen cupboard for your vinegar collection. A cool, dark environment is ideal and will preserve the acidity and character of vinegar for longer. Good vinegar stored properly will last you forever.

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