Sometimes when good things go bad it's actually good. The "controlled rot" of coagulated milk solids might not sound appealing but is actually a pretty good definition of aged cheese. The tender, juicy steakhouse cut gets its flavor from having some serious age under its belt. Vinegar, too, is really just juice that has gone past its sippable stage. They say that women and wine get better with age. And with even a little more time on the clock both can go from sweet and agreeable to downright feisty.
A Brief History
Vinegar has been around as long as eaters have been fermenting beverages, for at least five thousand years. It was "discovered," as many tasty things are, by accident - the result of wine that had been left unattended. Vinegar has been found in the tombs of Egypt and was popular in ancient Rome as well. Hippocrates, that rascal of culinary medicine, used it as an antiseptic and more.
Vinegar really took off in Europe in the Middle ages where it was valued not only for its flavor but as a cure for everything from snake bites to the plague. Vinegar was first commercially produced in Paris in 1394, when a method for manufacturing a continuous supply of vinegar from a single starter, known as the Orleans method (see below), and a distillery was registered. Although producers knew for centuries how to make vinegar, it wasn't until 1865 that Louis Pasteur understood what makes vinegar. It was his investigation, commissioned by an alcohol manufacturer, into the cause of spoilage of such beverages that led him to discover the family of microbes that turn vin to vinegar. Controlling those microbes became the foundation of his work in pasteurization, which changed the face of food production forever.
The word "vinegar" comes from the French vin, for "wine" and aigre, "sour."
To win a bet with Marc Antony that she could serve a more expensive buffet than he, Cleopatra is rumored to have drunk a glass of vinegar at her feast in which she had dissolved one of the largest and rarest pearls in the world to tip the tab in her favor.
In Roman times, the "posca," a refreshing mixture of water and vinegar (aka: "shrub," see below) was part of every meal.
In the 18th century, sponges soaked with vinegar were carried in small silver boxes, called vinaigrettes, or stored in the handles of canes. They were held under the nose to protect the bearer from the foul smells of the raw sewage that ran freely in the streets at that time.
Full strength distilled white vinegar makes an excellent herbicide. Spray it in the cracks of your walk or drive to eliminate weeds without toxic chemicals.
Making vinegar is simple kitchen chemistry. Vinegar, essentially, is the second fermentation of fruit juice (or grain mash). In the first fermentation, yeast digests the sugars in the juice and converts them into alcohol, turning grape juice into wine, for example. In the second fermentation, Acetobacter bacteria digests the alcohol and converts it into acetic acid, turning the wine, or other fermented beverage, into vinegar.
You can make your own vinegar by inoculating diluted wine or hard cider with vinegar mother (the slimy stuff in a bottle of unpasteurized vinegar) or purchased vinegar culture. Pour into a large, wide mouth container, open to air but covered with cheese cloth to prevent a pest invasion, and place in a dark location. In a few weeks: magic - vinegar. Strain it through a fine cloth, and decant into a clean container, reserving a portion to start your next batch.
There are a few methods used to manufacture vinegar on a large scale. The Orleans method, which was developed in France, ferments vinegars in large wooden barrels. The barrels are nearly filled with wine and a vinegar starter is added. Holes just above the fill line allow air to circulate. After a few months, the vinegar is drawn off through a spigot at the bottom of the barrel, carefully, so as not to disturb the bacteria which floats on top of the liquid. A portion of vinegar is left behind to start the next batch, which is initiated by adding more wine to the barrel.
The fermentation process can be rapidly accelerated by pumping air through the liquid. This method, called submerged fermentation, can produce a batch of vinegar in a matter of hours.
In the generator method, popular for distilled vinegars, alcohol slowly trickles through a substrate of wood shavings or charcoal that has been moistened with vinegar. By the time the alcohol reaches the bottom of the material, a process that can take up to a few weeks, it has been converted to vinegar.
Vinegar can be hand made in small batches or produced commercially by the vat full. The crux of the environmental impact of the product lies in the ingredients from which it is made. Large volume, commercial producers often use genetically modified corn as the base ingredient for their vinegar production. While the production method may be the same as a manufacturer who is using organic corn, the environmental impact of the GMOs is significantly greater.
There are many different kinds of vinegar, each with its own flavor profile. A few of the most popular ones include:
Wine Vinegars (White Wine, Champagne, Red Wine)
Not surprisingly, these vinegars are made from wine and reflect that characteristic flavor to varying degrees, depending on how they were produced. Handcrafted or homemade batches will retain more of the taste of the base liquid. Versions that are manufactured quickly may not have as much of the wine's personality and may be colored or flavored to mask this lack of character.
Apple cider vinegar was very popular in the America's early history. Blame it on John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, and his effort to populate the young country's land with apple trees suitable for creating cider (that's right folks, he was planting apple trees for hooch, not as a gift for the teacher). Abundant cider meant abundant apple cider vinegar, which became a critical food at the time, allowing colonists to preserve their seasonal harvests, and an American pantry staple.
Distilled vinegar is made from distilled spirits. In the United States, it is most commonly made from corn. Think of it as vinegar made from moonshine. It then goes through a second process which heats and condenses the vinegar to create a strong, consistent product.
Rice and Rice Wine Vinegar
Rice and rice wine vinegar are two separate kinds of vinegar. Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice and has the lighter flavor of the two. Rice wine vinegar is made from the lees, or dregs, of rice wine and has a fuller flavor. Both types of vinegar can be made from different types of rice which will be reflected in the flavor of the finished product.
Balsamic vinegars are not made from wine but from the pressings of grapes that are boiled to create a syrup which is then fermented. The resulting liquid is aged for an extended period of time in a succession of casks made from different types of wood, bringing complexity to the flavor of the vinegar. During the aging process, much of the liquid evaporates, condensing and concentrating the flavor which results in the sweet taste and viscous quality of balsamic vinegar.
Malt vinegar is made from beer and retains the warm brown color of the beverage. It is prized in England where the tangy condiment's slightly nutty, sweet flavor is the traditional match for fish and chips.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Vinegar has very few calories and no fat. Balsamic vinegar has some carbohydrates in the form of sugar from the addition of must to its recipe. Most vinegars contain only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Apple cider vinegar offers some B Vitamins and Vitamin C.
However, naturally fermented vinegar is believed by many to have a long list of benefits from increased energy and vigor to weight lost and improved metabolism. Vinegar that is unpasteurized, with a living mother in the bottle, is populated by thriving probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that we look for in yogurt, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. Such bacteria are believed to aid digestion and support gut health.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Dressing, marinades, sauces
The flavor of vinegar perks up a salad, adds brightness to a sauce and brings a deep level of flavor to your favorite marinade. But the chemical properties of vinegar are essential to making recipes great as well. Vinegar acts on protein strands, breaking them and then re-coagulating them. This process causes meats to become more tender. Taken too far, however, and the acid of vinegar can turn proteins mushy, so always follow your recipe's suggestion for marinating time.
Aged balsamic vinegar is sometimes used in desserts. Its sweet, syrupy personality add an interesting dimension to this after-dinner course. A drizzle on ice cream brings a level of sophistication well beyond a kids' cone. Dots of balsamic on your serving plates are fun to play with for visual interest and a burst of deep flavor on the plate. Balsamic plays nicely with fruits, such as peaches, cherries and other stone fruits or musky cantaloupe or other melon where the funkiness of the fermented juice and earthy flavor of the fruit, particularly if it is very to nearly over ripe, create the central circle of a Venn diagram of deliciousness.
The high acid content of vinegar keeps pathogens at bay. Submerging foods in a bath of vinegar or vinegar diluted with water can preserve them for weeks if refrigerated or longer if canned to provide an air-tight, microbe free environment. Pickled foods are delicious and offer a low-cost, low-tech way to enjoy local, seasonal food all year round.
Vinegar is a terrific base liquid for cold infusions. Vinegar infused with flavorful ingredients such as fruits, chilies and herbs can be used in everything from beverages (see below) to pan reductions and more.
"Drinking vinegar" is just another name for a shrub, the centuries (millennia?)-old drink that has slaked the thirst of the parched for ev-ah! A few tablespoons of vinegar - infused vinegars are particularly delicious - in a glass of cold water or seltzer and boom: you've got a shrub. Bottle it, brand it and they will come. Or leave off the label and you've got the same thirst quencher our founding fathers and mothers enjoyed. Sorry hipsters, shrubs were wildly popular in Colonial times.
One of my favorite kitchen secrets is to use a little bit of vinegar in my mashed potatoes. I got this idea from my mother's habit of adding a dollop of mayonnaise as she whipped to bring a little tang to the tots. I leave the mayo jar aside, but do add a few drops of mild vinegar along with the milk and butter. (This is not the place for sweet balsamic or Pubby, which would impose too much of their own personality to the dish.) You don't need much. No more than a teaspoon to two pounds of potatoes will brighten the whole batch, leaving just a trace of zesty zeal without tasting like dressed potato salad.
Distilled white vinegar is an inexpensive and effective house cleaner. The acetic acid destroys bacteria. It is often used to spray down kitchen countertops to clean them without leaving behind a chemical residue or fragrance from commercial cleaners. Distilled white vinegar is also a very effective glass cleaner. Spray on windows and wipe off with some crumpled newspaper for sparkling results.
Although all vinegars will remain safe to use indefinitely, those that have more distinct personalities, such as balsamic and malt vinegar, will lose flavor over time. To best preserve their taste, store them, closed, in a cool dark place. Once opened, use them within three years. The exception is distilled white vinegar, which will keep in the cabinet indefinitely with no change to color or flavor.
Never store vinegar in in metallic containers made from iron, copper, lead or lead crystal. The acetic acid in vinegar can react with the metal, creating a deadly compound.
Recipe: Blueberry Gastrique
Gastriques are reduced vinegar sauces that can be used in sweet and savory dishes. They cook up very quickly and are easy to make but bring a lot of wow to the plate both visually, with their intense color and glossy finish, and their pucker power.
Makes about 1½ cups.
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups (about ¾ pound) blueberries
Pinch of salt
Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a light boil over medium-low heat. Do not stir. Cook until the sugar melts and begins to color slightly, 5 to 7 minutes, washing down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush as necessary. Pour the vinegar into the pan, but be careful -- the vinegar will hiss and spit a good bit. The caramel will harden when the liquid hits it but will dissolve in the vinegar as it simmers. Simmer until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
Add the berries and continue to simmer until the sauce takes on the color and fragrance of the fruit and thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Finish with a sprinkle of salt.
To preserve: Refrigerate, freeze or can as desired.
If you choose to refrigerate: Ladle into bowls or jars. The gastrique will keep, covered, for up to 3 weeks.
If you go the freezer route: Freeze the gastrique in a covered ice cube tray or small container for up to 6 months.
If canning is more your style: Use the boiling-water method. Ladle the gastrique into clean, hot 4-ounce jars. Use a bubble tool, or other nonmetallic implement, to release any trapped air. Wipe the rims, cover the jars, and screw the bands on just fingertip-tight. Process for 10 minutes. Cool for 24 hours. Check the seals and store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.
Recipe excerpted from The Put 'em Up! Preserving Answer Book © 2014 by Sherri Brooks Vinton.