7 Vinegars Every Home Cook Should Have on Hand, According to a Pro
The world of vinegar is incredibly diverse, extending far beyond balsamic and apple cider. A key part of a professional chef's seasoning arsenal, vinegar can be made from fermenting any sugary concoction (think port wine to pineapple juice), which leaves flavor possibilities practically endless. Acids are beautiful balancers, cutting the heaviness of fat and meeting salt halfway to make a perfectly seasoned bite.
Related: Great Vinegars for Your Pantry
Outside of salad dressing, the role of acid is often underplayed in the home kitchen—but a great vinegar collection can be a home cook's secret weapon, adding a unique tang to a meat glaze or tossed with simple roasted vegetables for a vibrant finish. Try any one of these seven (or all if you're game) for an instant upgrade to your seasoning kit.
Imagine the buttery brioche notes of everyone's favorite bubbly, fashioned into something bright and sunny for your seasoning toolbox. This is Champagne vinegar, the black tie in this lineup. Yes, you can still call it "Champagne vinegar" if it's made from fermented sparkling wine, but look for classic Champagne grapes as signs of a quality product (Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier are good markers). The fun part is employing this seemingly fancy stuff in anything you want: sure, it plays excellently in a shallot mignonette for topping seaside oysters, but it dazzles equally in a weeknight salad dressing and nicely finishes a creamy fettuccine alfredo. Think Monday night roast chicken, lifted out of the ordinary with a splash of Champagne.
Buy it: Parasol Champagne Vinegar, $22 at brightland.co
Think of white balsamic as the subtler neighbor of the bold and bawdy balsamic you probably already have in your cabinet. Both varieties are made from crushed whole grapes. While regular balsamic is cooked until the sugars in the grapes caramelize (creating the dark color) and then barrel-aged for a strong depth of flavor, the grapes in white balsamic are cooked at a low temperature to prevent any browning, and the aging process is much shorter. The resulting product is a milder, sweeter, and color-less way to add lift to your dishes. Although delicious in its own right, balsamic vinegar can be overpowering and cast everything you've made a shade of mud; try substituting the white varietal to bring out (and not mask) the flavor of your meal, with a cleaner look. Light and sweet, it shines especially on fresh vegetables and delicate lettuces.
Buy it: Williams Sonoma White Balsamic, $30 at williams-sonoma.com
Sherry Wine Vinegar
As the name connotes, sherry wine vinegar is the product of fermented sherry wine, hailing from the Cadiz province in southwestern Spain. As a direct descendent of sherry, this vinegar holds all of the nutty caramel tones found in the sweet dessert wine. It's aged in oak barrels for a minimum of six months (and often longer), making it medium-bodied, well-balanced, and adding just enough complexity to your cooking without being overbearing. A huge player in both French and Spanish cuisines, sherry wine vinegar goes classically in the traditional gazpacho recipe. Splash onto a pan of sautéed mushrooms or caramelized onions, or brighten a hearty purée of any root vegetable.
Buy it: Murray's Sherry Riserva Vinegar, $12 at murrayscheese.com
Dark and deeply umami, black vinegar is made from fermented whole grains and aged in clay, resulting in an earthy, malt-flavored condiment. Originating in China, black vinegar has found its way into Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean cuisines, with every region making its vinegar from different combinations of grains (which can include rice, wheat, sorghum, or millet, to name a few). Some recipes call for cooked vegetables, while other varieties are inoculated with infusions like licorice or funghi. If you're new to black vinegars, the ubiquitous Zhenjiang vinegar is a great place to start: deeply rich and smoky, with the sweet tang of molasses. Use it straight as a dipping sauce for dumplings, apply liberally to your stir fry, or brush onto anything destined to be grilled.
Buy it: Chinkiang Zhenjiang Vinegar, $20 at amazon.com
Japanese Rice Wine Vinegar
Made from fermented steamed glutinous rice, this lightly colored and mildly sweet condiment carries with it the round and mellow quality of rice wine. It's traditionally used alongside sugar and salt to prepare sushi rice, and is also a key component of the Japanese cucumber salad sunomono. Use it for quick pickling vegetables like carrots, daikon, or red onion, whip up a batch of Ponzu, or add it to marinades to both season and tenderize.
Buy it: California Junmai Rice Wine Vinegar, $12 at hivebrands.com
This fermented mead derivative of honey is naturally floral and fragrant. Try this one in your desserts: believe it or not, your final course deserves some balancing treatment, and a dash of salt plus a reasonable addition of a sweet vinegar can take something rich into the realm of the ethereal (and it won't weigh so heavily on the palate, either). Honey vinegar works wonders in a classic buttercream recipe, adds a nice finish to poached or grilled fruits, and pairs well with nutty grains like buckwheat and rye.
Buy it: Kolossos Greek Organic Wine Vinegar Trio, $34 at food52.com
Ruby red and tart, this stunner of a vinegar is that little cheat ingredient that will leave all your friends believing you a very talented cook indeed. There's little mystery involved (you can even make your own by infusing any light-colored vinegar with raspberries), but it's the kind of thing that just pops in any dish. Toss with fresh tomatoes for the salad of your dreams, use it as a glaze for duck breast, invite it to your next baked brie, or slip it onto vanilla ice cream next to flourless chocolate cake—and voilà, you're a genius.
Buy it: Williams Sonoma Raspberry Fruit Blend Vinegar, from $19 at williams-sonoma.com