Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

Rice Vinegar: My Secret Ingredient


I play a game when dining out called Recipe Dissection.


Give me an intriguing meal and instantly I want to make it myself. Sometimes, the analysis comes easily: the flavors are crisp, distinct and separate, and the ingredients equally as obvious. I can effortlessly recreate the meal at home in one try. This doesn't make the dish or recipe any less satisfying. Simple meals and straight-forward cooking can be immensely rewarding.

But on occasion, a dish will stun me with a wave of complex flavors that are, culinarily speaking, as visible yet elusive as shadows at dusk. Great chefs strive to establish a reputation not just by inventing recipes that elicit oohs and ahhs of pleasure, but by concocting dishes that don't taste like anyone else's, and which pleasantly defy a diner's expectations.

To create a stamp of authorship, chefs may embrace certain ingredients and use them in unusual, nontraditional ways, such as basting a turkey breast with pomegranate molasses. "Fusion cuisine" can rank at the extreme end of this practice, often mixing up dissimilar cultural foods that may or may not be harmonious.

I'm not a big fan of fusion for fusion sake. But I'm also not opposed to using ingredients from one culture in nontraditional innovations. In fact, I do this all the time.

I have several secret ingredients that subtly underlie my personal recipes, but I'm only going to share one of them with you now: rice vinegar—the Japanese kind available in any market these days, made by such brands as Marukan or Nakano. The pale, barely golden liquid comes in regular, seasoned (slightly sweet), and even roasted garlic and other flavors.

Japanese rice vinegar has a delicately low acidity, so it adds tartness without being overbearing. Sometimes I use it in place of wine vinegar or lemon juice, or I may scale back on these ingredients and use them along with a splash of rice vinegar. Recipes often say to substitute cider vinegar for rice vinegar, but I don't find them at all the same. It's like subbing Worcestershire sauce for tamari—both are fine ingredients but they affect a dish quite differently.

When you change the acid/base balance of a recipe, the impact is enough to change the way every other ingredient interacts. Acids can perk and highlight, but they can also overpower. The beauty of rice vinegar is it's ability to heighten flavors and yet go almost unnoticed. And because it has a low acidity, rice vinegar can be used with little or no oil, especially the "seasoned" variety which contains a touch of sugar. It's important to rethink and adjust the oil proportions when you use rice vinegar, again impacting the overall flavor of the dish.

So what happens when you tone down both the acids and the bases? Other ingredients lighten and lift to the surface, instead of being weighted down or masked over. Lettuce, fruit, vegetables, poultry and even beef and pork shine with honesty, their natural flavors being truly enhanced.

I have no magic formula for when to use rice vinegar or how much to use when creating, or especially when adapting, recipes. Play around until you get a feel for the versatility of regular and seasoned rice vinegars. However, to get you started, here's a couple of my own recipes—(shh! when your guests go ooh and ahh, don't tell them the magic ingredient. Let's keep it our little secret!).


Kate's Rice Vinegar Recipes:


This Month in Kate's Global Kitchen:

4/03/99: Egg-straordinary Egg Recipes
4/10/99: Party Food—The Book
4/17/99: Rice Vinegar: My Secret Ingredient
4/24/99: Cooking with Kids for Dummies: Selected Tips and Recipes


Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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This page created April 1999