Sour Grapes

Vinegar (from the French vin aigre, “sour wine”) is simply an alcoholic liquid that has gone bad. But it’s far more than soured wine—you can find it used to do everything from flavoring artisanal caramels to dissolving the deposits that clog your showerhead. Vinegar comes in dozens of different forms, many of which Americans have never heard of, but we’re waking up to the range of culinary possibilities for the sour brew.

“Within the specialty food industry, we’ve seen fast growth and innovation in the vinegar category,” says Denise Shoukas, communications director for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, an organization that puts on the thrice-yearly Fancy Food Shows. “The flavors continue to expand each year and show no signs of stopping.”

People have been making and using vinegar as long as they have made wine. The ancient Sumerians used vinegar as a flavoring, preservative, and cleaner more than 5,000 years ago. Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, told a story about Cleopatra dissolving an enormous pearl in vinegar to win a bet with Marc Antony that she could consume an entire fortune in one meal. Even the Gospels mention vinegar; sponges soaked in it were offered to Jesus on the cross.

How It’s Made

All vinegar starts with some kind of alcohol. Then harmless airborne bacteria called acetobacters are introduced; they convert the alcohol into acetic acid. This gives vinegar its tart bite. (Flavor compounds in the original sugar source, along with the production method, determine the complexity and taste of the final product.)

You could make vinegar by letting an alcoholic liquid sit exposed to the air for a few months, which is how it was done for thousands of years, but that’s unreliable. Most vinegars sold today are made using one of two more effective methods.

Orleans method. This vinegar, named for the city in France in which the method was perfected, is the more labor-intensive and artisanal of the two. Barrel aging results in a vinegar that has a more nuanced flavor. The alcoholic base (wine and cider are most common for this method) is mixed with acetobacters, usually in the form of “mother of vinegar.” This is the name for a slimy mass of cellulose and bacteria created by acetobacters as they work, which at some point was created by the old-fashioned leaving-alcohol-open-to-the-air method but has more likely been saved by vinegar makers from previous batches, something like sourdough starter. (Mother sometimes forms in bottles of old vinegar. It looks like a blob of cloudy slime floating on the surface of the liquid, but is completely harmless and doesn’t affect the taste.)

The acetobacter-alcohol mixture is then placed in a wooden barrel with extra holes drilled in it to allow for oxygen circulation, along with more alcohol. It ferments for two to six months. Some, but not all, of the finished vinegar is drawn off, more alcohol is added, and the process begins again. The Orleans method results in a vinegar that is milder, because a small amount of the alcohol is not fermented into acid, and more complex, because wood-aging contributes new flavor compounds. The method can also result in the formation of ethyl acetate, a chemical with a slight nail-polish-remover taste and smell.

Submerged fermentation method. This is the industrial way of making vinegar and the one used to make the vast majority of vinegars on the market. Acetobacter in the form of mother from a previous batch is mixed with the alcoholic base in a huge metal tank called an acetator. The tank is equipped with a motor that circulates the mixture and pumps air through it constantly, along with computer-controlled equipment that keeps everything at the ideal temperature of around 80°F. By keeping the acetobacters warm and aerated, this method makes vinegar much more quickly: The acid fermentation can happen in as few as one to two days. Unlike the Orleans method, submerged fermentation converts all the alcohol in the base to acid, meaning that vinegar made by this method will have a sharper taste.

There’s little need to pasteurize vinegar, because the acid kills most of the harmful bacteria. However, most vinegars are pasteurized to prevent the formation of mother, which some find unappealing. Typically, cider vinegar and kombucha (see below) are not pasteurized because their supporters believe that the process would destroy their alleged medicinal properties. Some expensive artisanal vinegars are also unpasteurized, because the word holds mystique among some specialty food enthusiasts.

Types of Vinegar

To make white, distilled, or spirit vinegar, distilled ethanol (a.k.a. pure grain alcohol or Everclear) is diluted to below 18 percent alcohol (acetobacters die at higher concentrations) and fermented, producing a clear mixture of pure acetic acid and water. It has no taste beyond acidity, which is why white distilled vinegar is generally not used to flavor foods (with the exception of pickling). It does have a number of household uses, many of which can be found on this list from the Vinegar Institute, a trade group.

Wine vinegars (red wine, white wine, Champagne, sherry, and so on) are made from grapes. The manufacturer either starts with grape juice and does the alcoholic fermentation, or starts with wine made by somebody else. If a wine vinegar comes from a specific grape varietal or combination of varietals, it will share characteristics with those grapes—for example, the cabernet and merlot vinegars sold by artisanal vinegar producer Round Pond are more tannic and less fruity than its Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Petit Verdot vinegars. Red wine vinegars also have slightly higher acid content than white wine vinegars, so it’s best to use them with stronger-tasting foods. Substituting one-quarter cup of wine vinegar for each cup of wine in marinades will give you the same wine flavor but juicier meat, because the acid acts as a tenderizer.

Traditionally, balsamic vinegar is made from Italian trebbiano grapes whose juice is boiled down before fermentation to concentrate the sweetness and other flavors. The vinegar is then aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of eight barrels made of various kinds of woods, each contributing a different set of wood-aging flavors. The end product is a syrupy, sweet, dark-brown elixir that’s complex and very expensive (a 3.4-ounce bottle of aged balsamic is $120 at Dean & DeLuca), but perfect drizzled over grilled vegetables or strawberries. Balsamic labeled Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio Emilia (the only two Italian cities that make traditional balsamic) is always made this way. A bottle just called balsamic vinegar could be anything—most manufacturers use red wine vinegar with added colorings and sweeteners. Cheap stuff can still make a nice vinaigrette), or can be boiled down into a reduction and used in place of the real stuff. It won’t taste as good, but the consistency will be close. Some sherry vinegars are also made using methods akin to those used for traditional balsamics, resulting in a similar flavor and consistency.

Apple cider vinegar must be made from the juice of apples (not apple peels or cores, according to the FDA), which is fermented into alcoholic cider, then again into vinegar. It has a mild, fruity taste that makes it a good marinade, especially for pork. It also is the basis of Carolina-style barbecue sauces. Many claim cider vinegar in particular offers all sorts of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels to curing asthma, arthritis, and migraines, but few, if any, of these claims have been proven by medical science.

Rice vinegar, also known as rice wine vinegar, is made by fermenting rice into crude sake, then letting the acetobacters go to work. It has a delicate flavor that matches well with Asian foods. Japanese rice vinegar is nearly clear and very mild, and is used to flavor sushi rice and dipping sauces for tempura or gyoza. Chinese rice vinegar is stronger (though still less intense than other vinegar varieties), and ranges in color from pale amber to nearly black, depending on the kind of rice used. The best place to find Chinese rice vinegar is your local Asian market, but Amazon sells Gold Plum Chinkiang vinegar, a brand that some say is the best black rice vinegar available. Rice vinegars are good for sweet-and-sour dishes and as a stir-fry seasoning. Many are seasoned with salt, sugar, or other flavorings.

The classic accompaniment to fish and chips and other fried foods, malt vinegar comes from barley or other grains that have been malted—that is, allowed to germinate before fermentation in order to release their sugars. The grains are yeast-fermented into what is essentially beer, and then bacteria-fermented into vinegar. Some of the better malt vinegars are aged before bottling, somewhat mellowing their sharp acidity.

Beyond these, there are dozens of vinegars made from an array of bases used in cuisines around the world. Mellow, golden-brown cane vinegar, made from fermented sugarcane, is popular in the Philippines for adobo and other dishes, and is also used in Cajun hot sauces. Sharp, cloudy coconut vinegar is made from the fermented sap of the coconut palm, and is used in Thailand and other parts of southeast Asia. Vinegar made from fermented dates and fermented raisins is used in Turkey and the Middle East. Beer vinegar (which is technically a malt vinegar, but made from beer brewed to be drunk) can be found in Germany, especially Bavaria. Kombucha, the trendy drink that proponents say prevents cancer and detoxifies the liver, is also essentially a vinegar, made by adding yeast and acetobacters to sweetened green tea and allowing it to ferment.

However, most of the nontraditional vinegars found in American grocery stores are actually flavored vinegars—wine, cider, or even distilled vinegar with added fruit juice or herb flavorings.