Andrew Zimmern's Guide to Vinegars
Let’s take a peek at olive oil’s best acidic friend that isn’t lemon juice.
Vinegar is back. If you don’t think so, grab a copy of Michael Harlan Turkell’s new book on the subject, Acid Trip. I find that most home cooks don’t get vinegars. They’re misunderstood, mostly due to the factory made red wine vinegar that everyone commonly cooks with… that and the giant gallon of white distilled vinegar that we all use, mostly to clean and disinfect things! Good vinegars come in all shapes, sizes, strengths and viscosities and are probably my most often used seasoning agent in the kitchen after the other major acids we use in solid form, sugar and salt.
Let’s take a peek at olive oil’s best acidic friend that isn’t lemon juice!
In general, wine vinegars have at least 6 percent acetic acid. Other vinegars fall around 4 to 6 percent acidity. Variations are slight, but are of crucial importance when you make pickles and preserves. Wine, malt, and cider vinegars are strong. Distilled and spirit vinegars are even stronger. While any vinegar can be distilled, malt vinegar is the one you most commonly see that uses this process. Distill acetic acid and the result is vinegar that is above 6 percent acidity.
Vinegars tend to reflect what goes and grows in the country of origin. France, Italy, and Spain are famous for wine vinegars. In North America it’s cider vinegar. In Britain, they make a lot of beer and so malt vinegar reigns supreme. And in Asian countries mild rice vinegars are the norm.
Everyone loves wine vinegars, which have an amazingly large list of uses. The word vinegar comes from the French vinaigre, which translates to ‘sour wine.’ You need to remember that anything juiced from natural ingredients will ferment, naturally, and all the teeny microbes, bacteria and yeasts eat sugars in the liquid and make alcohol. Left alone all that acetic bacteria will eventually devour the alcohol, and so make vinegar.
The way that most wine vinegars are created is via something called the Orleans process, which comes from the name of the French city on the Loire. That’s where the technique was born, using small barrels, only filled part way to encourage air flow, the oxygen allowing wild yeast to bloom. Eventually, a spongy edible jello-looking blob appears. That’s called the ‘mother.’ This beautiful creature is a mass of acidic bacteria and yeast, and is often found on the surface of the barrel or sinks to the bottom. If you buy some really fantastic unpasteurized vinegar you might see some mother in the bottle. DON’T WORRY! This is a great thing, you can remove it and start your own batch of vinegar…or toss it away. Your vinegar hasn’t spoiled, remember it’s already ‘gone bad.’
Many vinegars come from a singular grape varietal, like Merlot or Chardonnay. Sherry vinegar is dark and sweetly rounded, aged in wood casks and is Alex Guarnaschelli’s favorite condiment when you press her on the subject. Balsamic vinegar is properly called aceto balsa mico and comes from Modena in northern Italy. Balsamic vinegar is made from unfermented grape juice and is also aged in wooden casks. Most of the stuff you find is really crappy compared to the real fine vinegars that are aged for a minimum of ten years. Then it becomes ethereal and can be sipped or drizzled on savory or sweet dishes to finish the plate. Sugar cane vinegars are made from fermented cane sap and like coconut vinegars are used to marinate and finish many savory dishes as well. Cider vinegar is made from apple juice or apple mash and is made the same way as wine vinegar. It’s strong, and has a beautiful bite. Commercial versions pale in comparison to the boutique cider vinegars, some of which are unfiltered and can be cloudy. Again, that’s not a bad thing at all. Don’t throw it out! Malted barley is what malt vinegar comes from. You will often see it used for pickling vegetables or doused on fish and chips. Commercial versions are used to make chutneys and in industrial pickling processes.
Rice vinegar is most commonly seen in Asian cooking. It is made from rice wines. Japanese versions are pretty gentle, Chinese versions tend to be harsher. Many come flavored with soy sauce, mirin, ginger, dried bonito flakes, hot pepper, mustard and so on. Chinese black vinegar is made from wheat, sorghum or millet and is a dim sum mainstay and delightful to cook with providing you get a good one.
Flavored vinegar is one of my favorite categories and can be seasoned with fruits, herbs or honey. The choices are unlimited and are becoming more popular all the time, delightful in salads or as a finishing vinegar. Flavored vinegars like tarragon vinegar are superb for béarnaise sauce, or mayonnaise and red wine vinegar with mustard is how I season my everyday beef stew when I want to create a more sublime flavor profile.
Fruit vinegars also make excellent seasonings. Finishing a bowl of ham and bean soup with a drizzle of aged apple cider vinegar will blow your mind. These days I think home cooks forget about the importance of vinegar as a seasoning for a finished dish. Many of these vinegars are spendy, so I store them most often in my fridge or at minimum in a cool dark place. And don’t be afraid to buy the best vinegars, which while expensive, are made from the best ingredients.
Almost all vinegars are being cask aged these days, maturing to near syrupy consistency. From maple-sherry vinegars like Blis to French cider condiments, you should not pass these up.
High-quality sherry vinegar will take your every day green salad and turn it into the kind of dish that will impress. I use vinegars to deglaze sauté pans for sublime sauces. You can use a sweet vinegar like balsamic in a fruit salad. I will often drizzle some of my calamansi or raspberry vinegar into a can of cucumber soda to make one of my favorite refreshing beverages. Cider vinegar used to deglaze a pan that roasted a pork shoulder with apples and onions is one of my go-to’s.
Here is a killer recipe for you to try, and a picture of some of my favorite vinegars.
Pan Roasted Cornish Hens with Cider, Apples and Currants
This dish serves 4-6 and works great with quail or squab as well.
- 4 Cornish hens, split and separated into light and dark quarters
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 5 shallots, minced
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1 cup apple cider
- 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced fine
- 1 cup chicken stock
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 5 tablespoons dried currants or raisins
- 3 tablespoons fresh chopped tarragon
Season hens and brown in the butter over high heat in a large heavy pan. Reserve to a platter.
Add the shallots to the pan you browned the bird in. When softened, add the vinegar, cider and apples.
Bring to a simmer and add the chicken back to the pan, allowing the liquids to reduce at a simmer to a glaze around the birds.
Add the cream and currants, simmering for a few minutes to tighten the sauce. When dish is complete add the tarragon, stir and correct the seasoning.