Using Vinegar to Brighten and Balance Dishes [Infographic]
When you think of vinegar, salad dressing is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are many more uses for this tart ingredient. As chef Samin Nosrat explains in her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, acidity is essential to cooking because it balances and heightens other flavors. Just think of a refreshingly sour lemonade or the umami and tang in a bite of balsamic glazed beets. Neither would taste as complex and delicious without acidity to complement the sweetness.
Just as there are countless recipes that could benefit from a dash of vinegar, there are countless types of vinegar to choose from. Some are so tart they’ll pucker your mouth, some are sweet, and some even have that funky, old-cellar smell that, at first whiff, might seem unappetizing (until you reduce them over pork chops). But before we dive into vinegar pairings, let’s take a closer look at this age-old condiment.
Vinegar is a product of fermentation and can be made with anything that contains sugar. Fermentation is the process of bacteria breaking sugars down into alcohol, resulting in tasty libations like beer, wine, and kombucha. Vinegar takes the process one step further. Bacteria convert the alcohol into acetic acid, which gives vinegar its tartness. Whatever food you ferment (be it apples, wine, or rice), gives the end product a unique flavor.
Vinegars also vary in acidity, so while some may be harsh and inedible on their own, others can be so well-rounded and sweet you could sip them by the spoonful. That’s why you want to choose the right vinegar for the recipe you’re making, and as with cooking oils, there are certain vinegars you want to cook with and others that are best kept off the heat.
To help you single out the best vinegar to brighten up a dish, we’ve broken them down by flavor, type, and intensity.
Light Vinegars: Versatile Pantry Staples
Light in color and mellow in flavor, these household staples are best used for cooking. Distilled white vinegar should never be consumed as is because it’s so harsh and flavorless. Derived from distilled alcohol, it’s nothing but pure acidity, which is why it’s often used for household cleaning. Small quantities can add tang to condiments like ketchup without overpowering other ingredients, and milk curdled with a dash of white vinegar can be substituted for buttermilk in a pinch. It’s also great for pickling — a ratio of ⅔ vinegar to ⅓ water is a good place to start.
Red and white wine vinegars have a bit more character to them, but they’re still relatively mild. Red wine vinegar has the depth and tannic quality of red wine, making it a wonderful addition to marinades and braises. White wine vinegar is a bit sweeter and softer, and is often used for brines or salad dressings. The quality of the vinegar depends on the quality of the wine it’s made from, so use lesser quality wine vinegars when cooking (where subtle flavors will be lost) and reserve the higher quality and varietal-specific vinegars for finishing or uncooked recipes.
Bright Vinegars: Balance and Nuance
These vinegars have stronger, more distinct flavor profiles that can brighten and balance a dish. If you’re cooking with them, they should be used toward the end of the recipe to preserve their taste and aromas. In recent years, apple cider vinegar has become all the rage. Touted for its health benefits, apple cider vinegar has a tart and fruity flavor that some enjoy as a diluted drink purported to kill harmful bacteria, lower cholesterol, and improve heart health. It also complements pork, brassicas, and stews.
Rice vinegar is a pillar of Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It’s mild and sweet, yet it has a zip that enhances other flavors, and the acetic acid it contains is thought to boost digestive health by helping your gut absorb more nutrients. Rice vinegar is essential to making sushi rice, but it’s also delicious in dressings, stir-fries, and poultry marinades. Similarly, champagne vinegar’s sweetness lends it to delicate dishes. It’s low in acidity and as such, it doesn’t overwhelm the subtle flavors of fish, poultry, avocado, or light salads.
Bold Vinegars: Complexity and Age
Now for the vinegars that really pack a punch. These vinegars have more depth of flavor because they are typically aged, either at the end of the process via the solera system (as is the case for balsamic) or at the beginning, as with high-quality wine vinegars.
Balsamic vinegar has become more common in the U.S. and it’s not hard to see why: combining sweet and savory notes with dark fruit and smoky, aged wood, balsamic is the king of complexity. Balsamic vinegar — which varies wildly in quality and cost — is made from grapes rather than wine, which explains its fruitier character. Though balsamic began as a uniquely Italian product made in the region of Modena, adventurous American producers are experimenting with their own versions. Try it with olive oil for an exquisitely simple salad, as a glaze for vegetables and red meat, or even drizzled over ripe melon for a delightful contrast of flavors.
Single-varietal wine vinegars have all the same applications as generic red or white wine vinegars, but because of their more nuanced flavor, they are better suited for finishing or dressing dishes rather than cooking. Vinegars derived from bold red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon pair well with peppery or bitter greens like arugula or chard, while those derived from white wines should be matched with lighter fare, like aioli, chicken salad, or butter lettuce. Chardonnay vinegar, in particular, has a slight oakiness, making it more robust and able to stand up to mussels, roasted chicken, or grilled vegetables.
Now it’s your turn to cook and get creative. Don’t be afraid to experiment by adding vinegar to marinades, braises, stews, and soups. You can also liven up everyday dishes with a splash or two of bright or bold vinegar. Just be sure to taste test as you go until the flavor is where you want it.
By keeping a few different vinegars on hand, you’ll be able to quickly and easily brighten or balance almost any dish. Just be sure to store them in a cool, dark place and replace your vinegars after a few years. While it’s a pretty shelf stable product, vinegar will lose its flavor over time. Hopefully, with this inspiration, you’ll burn through your bottles before they have a chance to fade!