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: