The Skinny On...Vinegar
Here’s the secret every chef knows: A little vinegar makes most things better.
Since vinegar can be made from an array of fermented liquids, there are hundreds of types on the market. This list covers everything from the common to the more esoteric.
Red wine vinegar
Made, of course, from red wine, this pucker-inducing and hearty vinegar is best in full-flavored dishes, ones stocked with herbs, with layers of flavors. In other words, use it in dishes with which you might also drink red wine: beef, pork and vegetable stews.
White wine vinegar
Slightly sweeter than red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar offers a fresh, spring-like finish to salads and grilled vegetables. It’s particularly nice on fish. A tiny splash brings out the sweetness in berries, peaches and melons. And no more than 1/4 teaspoon adds a refreshing zip to the fillings of fruit pies, cobblers and crisps.
Apple cider vinegar
This heavy, sour vinegar is harsh and should be used sparingly. Pair it with oils and even lots of herbs to tone it down a bit.
Originally made only from the cooked must of white Trebbiano grapes, this sweet vinegar has become quite popular in the last 25 years. Non-aged, less expensive bottlings are great in all sorts of cooking: marinades and rubs, of course, but also as a lovely back taste in soups and stews (no more than a tablespoon or two in a whole batch). More expensive bottlings of balsamic vinegar — aged for years in wood casks like fine wine — are thick and syrupy; they should be used strictly as a drizzled condiment on grilled vegetables or sliced tomatoes.
Made from ale, this vinegar is popular in Great Britain. Try it on just about anything oven-fried — or skip the ketchup and use a splash on fries.
This Asian staple made from rice wine is low in acid, a great foil to more complex tastes in stir-fries and Asian-inspired stews. It also pairs well with chilis of all sorts. One note: Seasoned rice vinegar has sugar added to the mix. Search out the plain original, no sweetener necessary.
From fermented coconut water, this Southeast Asian staple is cloudy, with a sour but yeasty kick. It’s often sprinkled onto Indian curries and Filipino rice dishes — and makes a nice condiment in most stir-fries.
White balsamic vinegar
Basically, this is made from Trebbiano grapes (not just the must) without any aging and little fermenting. It’s sweet and light, a refreshing change in salad dressings.
Made from fermented sugarcane juice and popular across the southern hemisphere from the Philippines to sub-Saharan Africa, this vinegar comes in a range of colors, from cloudy-white to dark and thick. Consider the color a guide to the taste: the lighter the color, the brighter and more sour the taste; the darker, the more caramel-like and complex.
More to look for:
Popular in Middle Eastern cooking, a more sour condiment than pomegranate molasses, this vinegar is nonetheless quite mild with a lovely light finish, best on steamed vegetables of all sorts.
Popular in northern Europe and made from various kinds of beer, it has a deeply malty taste, more intense than malt vinegar. It’s great on anything oven-fried — as well as a condiment drizzle on grilled chops or steaks.
Made from red rice yeast, it’s quite aromatic, the better bottlings with tastes reminiscent of bread. Consider it a condiment to be used in most Asian-inspired marinades and rubs.
This dark, viscous liquid is made from glutinous black rice, fermented into a wine and then aged into vinegar. It’s thick, stout, a little sweet and quite complex. Try it on its own over brown rice, a more interesting pop than mere butter. (Many are sweetened in some way — again, search out the plain original.)
Another to look for:
A lighter form of black vinegar, quite popular in Japan, it’s served on its own as a health drink, a sour kick to detox the palate.