The Value of Vinegar
by Kate Heyhoe
In my kitchen, almost no meal is complete without a splash of vinegar. A dose of the pleasantly puckery stuff may be discerned in a marinade, a sauce, a salad, or even on dessert. Why? Because vinegar either balances or enhances the sweets, salts, spices, and oils, or other fats, of the overall meal. By themselves, these flavor types lose impact without the contrast of the others. Chefs know that vinegar in particular, or some other tart ingredient, can add the necessary zing to raise a meal's star rating from one to four.
Citrus juice is another good sour source, but freshness is key and I don't always have lemons or limes on hand. Bottled vinegars have good shelf life, and the wide range of vinegar varieties gives the cook plenty of creative leeway.
Delicate lettuces, mesclun, and microgreens in particular deserve to be dressed in style. I often combine different vinegars to get the right balance of acidity, salt, and fruitiness or sweetness. When I hit on a good combination (one that's not too acidic with some sweetness and saltiness), I also find that I need less oil. Consequently, my salads are lighter, crisper, and richer in the natural flavor of the delicate greens.
Here are few gems of the vinegar world:
Ume Plum Vinegar—A first taste of this briny brew will make your eyes squint involuntarily. But don't pass it up. Made from salted ume plums (actually a type of apricot), a few drops of this Japanese vinegar adds a fruity, salty, acidic element, and in fact can be used instead of salt in a salad or sauce. For best results when dressing salads, use a wine vinegar as the main sour element, with a splash of ume plum vinegar for a special undertone of flavor. Look for it in health and whole food stores and in Japanese markets.
BR Cohn Wine Vinegars—These are just as good as their wines, which is not surprising since the BR Cohn vinegars are made from their wines. From cabernet to chardonnay and champagne, their vinegars can be especially light and crisp, rich and complex, with noticeable oak or fruit and berry tones. Acidity runs around 6 percent. Make a basic vinaigrette with their vinegars, and their olive oils for that matter, and you'll instantly notice the difference made by the quality of such key ingredients.
Another good maker of Italian red wine vinegar (aged in oak) and olive oils is the newly released line from a & h (Giuliano Hazan and Marilisa Allegrini).
Rice Vinegars—Traditional Japanese rice vinegar comes plain and "seasoned," which means it's been lightly sweetened. I use both kinds of rice vinegar (and there are other ones, too, flavored with garlic and such). Because rice vinegar is generally only around 4 percent acidity, it adds tartness without pucker. I often use it without any oil at all, or to tame down a more acidic vineger. The "seasoned" vinegar can replace the sweetness that's typically found in a classic vinaigrette, which usually comes from granulated sugar or honey, but in this case, the sweetness is already dissolved and more convenient.
Red and White Balsamic Vinegars—By this time only a person from another planet wouldn't know about balsamic vinegars. These thick, aged-in-wood, slightly sweet and complex vinegars adorn everything from salads and glazes to ice cream and strawberries. Authentic Italian balsamic vinegar is made from the Trebbiano grape, and the syrupy stuff is deep in flavor and dark in color. Now, a "white balsamic" is on the market. Purists will faint at the thought of white balsamic, but it's got some wonderful characteristics: a good sweet-acid balance, lighter than wine vinegar, but not as heavy as true balsamic, and pale in color, instead of muddy. (It's actually a blend of balsamic and white wine vinegars.) Both types of balsamic, dark and light, are welcome in my kitchen.
Next time you're cooking for compliments, look to the wide range of vinegars to add just the right flavor complement to your meal. Use them separately or in combination, and be adventuresome. You'll find almost as many vinegars out there as oils, including fruit vinegars, sherry and other wine vinegars, aged and young vinegars, and many more. Keep in mind the type of vinegar (such as red wine) is only one indicator of its flavor; how it's made, what it's made from, and how it's aged make vinegars as complex as a classic cabernet—or whatever your wine of choice may be.
Favorite Vinegar Recipes
Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created September 2004