The Best Oil and Vinegar Pairings
My quest to make the world’s best vinegar began by mistake: I left a bottle of wine out, uncorked. With the wine well past its drinking prime, I decided to conduct an experiment. I poured the remains into a jar, covered it with cheesecloth and waited (patience is key to great vinegar). After a few weeks of occasional stirring—which introduces oxygen and speeds the conversion of ethyl alcohol to acetic acid— I was left with a bracingly beautiful liquid. Still nuanced with many of its original aromatics, it was unlike the characterless acerbic bombs found in most supermarkets. I was hooked. Suddenly I had an unquenchable desire to make more vinegary things—from beer, from fruit juice, from honey, even from rice. My apartment was filled with fermenting jars and barrels. I started making salads with a honey vinegar I infused with tarragon. I glazed chicken with a honey vinegar I fermented with whiskey, lemon and cloves, giving the skin a tart, crisp bite. I recorded notes in countless journals. Then I brought those findings on the road while I researched my cookbook Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar.
My journeys took me to Europe, Japan and across North America. I studied vinegar making with multigenerational producers and picked up lessons on how to cook with vinegars from brilliant chefs such as Michel Troigros and Massimo Bottura. If there was one thing I learned, it’s this: If a dish seems to be missing something, it probably needs acid. But acid is best balanced with fat—a fundamental truth that’s at the heart of the most common of pairings, oil and vinegar. In cuisines around the globe, this classic combo takes many forms, and over time I’ve come up with an ever-expanding array of favorites. Exploring the possibilities in your own kitchen can open up a world of flavors. Here are some of the best:
Japan: Rice Vinegar & Rice Bran Oil
Not as intense or acidic as other vinegars, Japanese rice vinegar (komezu) is used in marinades and sauces, its slight sourness providing balance in salty, umami-rich dishes. Look for unseasoned versions, which are clean and fresh and pair well with bright flavors like yuzu citrus or plum vinegar (ume-su). Rice bran oil—commonly used for frying because of its high smoke point—has a lightly toasted quality that goes well with rice vinegar’s subtlety.
Use them in: Vinegar-marinated beef yakitori
China: Black Vinegar & Sesame Oil
Eastern Chinese cuisine features a lot of sweet-and-sour, mostly derived from Chinkiang vinegar, better known as black vinegar. Resembling soy sauce, it is made from glutinous rice and cereal grains, and is even milder in its acidity than most Japanese rice vinegars but with a deeper flavor, making it great for braises and glazes. Sesame oil, traditionally used in Chinese cooking, has a rich mouthfeel that helps give body to black vinegar.
Use them in: Hot-and-sour meatball soup
Austria: Apple Cider Vinegar & Pumpkin Seed Oil
Apple cider vinegar is ubiquitous in Austria, particularly in the southeastern region of Styria, where one of the specialties is Kürbiskernöl, a viscous dark-green pumpkin seed oil often found in local spa food. This hearty oil can stand up to the weight and brightness of apple cider vinegar, especially when they’re tossed with sautéed cabbage or Käferbohnensalat (the region’s signature scarlet runner bean salad), or drizzled on pork chops.
Use them in: Pork loin stuffed with apples and pumpkin seeds
Italy (Tuscany): Red Wine Vinegar & Hazelnut Oil
From ripe tomatoes to tangy sheep-milk pecorino, Tuscan food tends to have a healthy amount of acidity, which is nicely complemented by the fruity complexity of red wine vinegar. When fortified by rich hazelnut oil (the nuts are grown all over Italy), the two strengthen each other.
Use them in: Vinegar-glazed butternut squash pasta salad
Italy (Modena/Reggio Emilia): Balsamic Vinegar & Grapeseed Oil
As defined by strict DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) codes, only two regions, Modena and Reggio Emilia, can produce Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. While it’s worth seeking out ones with the designation, there are plenty of good non-DOP balsamic vinegars available. The finest examples are thick, tart and intense, making them good companions to a lighter oil like grapeseed. Try this combo with roast meats, braised stews or luscious pan sauces.
Use them in: Fried zucchini chips
France: Champagne Vinegar & Olive Oil
Unlike Champagne wines, Champagne vinegars can be produced anywhere. Most have the clarity, crispness and almost effervescent quality you’d expect from a glass of bubbly. Examples made in the Orléans style—slowly fermented in barrels—have a more robust character. Champagne vinegar’s pungency is nicely offset by the grassiness of olive oil, so the pairing is ideal for vinaigrettes or in marinades for crisp, lightly cooked veggies.
Use them in: Crispy chicken with champagne vinegar aioli
Spain: Sherry Vinegar & Sunflower Oil
In Jerez de la Frontera, near Spain’s southern tip, Moorish fortresses protect sherry vinegar that is aged using a special blending process that mixes younger vinegars with older ones. The resulting nutty-accented sherry vinegar is a great finishing drizzle that brightens beans, balances spicy chorizo or adds complexity to soups. The delicate sweetness of sunflower oil tempers the vinegar’s oxidized notes but allows its distinct qualities to shine.
Use them in: Chorizo-and- fig salad
USA: Honey Vinegar & Avocado Oil
Mead, a drink made by fermenting honey in water, can quickly turn to vinegar if you’re not careful. But that’s OK because honey vinegar is delicious. Its acute flavors benefit from the smoothness of avocado oil—which doesn’t taste like avocados, though it’s definitely buttery. This pairing works well in savory grain bowls or on its own for dunking crusty bread.
Use them in: Persimmon-and- endive salad
USA: Beer Vinegar & Peanut Oil
With the American craft beer industry booming, it should come as no surprise that a number of exemplary beer vinegars are popping up. In Britain, malt vinegar has long been a basic accompaniment to fish and chips, but in the US beer vinegars can be as varied as the beer itself, with subtle savory and roasty flavors. A mix of peanut oil and beer vinegar is a perfect way to wake up salty bar bites, chicken wings, chili or roasted root vegetables.
Use them in: Crispy potato tarte flambée
USA: Blackberry Vinegar & Coconut Oil
Shrub cocktails—acidulated beverages composed of fruit juice, sugar and vinegar—may be big in the mixology world, but edible shrubs, such as blackberries and raspberries, yield extraordinary vinegars. The berries’ sweet and tart flavors become more concentrated in vinegar form, which plays well with the tropical notes of unrefined coconut oil. Try this vibrant combo with roasted fruit or chilled seafood dishes like ceviche.
Use them in: Berry vinegar tart