Distinctive vinegars are making a big splash these days. Chefs and home cooks alike have realized the flavor possibilities that today’s heady vinegars offer. From Spanish sherry vinegar to Italy’s famed balsamic vinegar, to fruit vinegars pressed exclusively from fruits other than grapes ( apples, currants, pears to name a few ) this ancient condiment has become the new playground for cooks seeking to add flavor without adding sweetness or heat. In fact, in some cases, salt can be reduced or eliminated if vinegar is used in a dish.
Vinegar is an essential component that adds verve and backbone to a recipe, be it as elemental as pairing an agrodolce ( late harvest ) Sauvignon Blanc wine vinegar with a slightly peppery olive oil for a seasonal pear, walnut and baby spinach salad, or the addition of a splash of a nutty, aromatic sherry vinegar to an end-of-summer chilled gazpacho or a simple tapas-inspired dish of chorizo, garlic and white beans.
In recent years Americans have embraced the sweet-sour glory of balsamic vinegar, a very heady departure from the clean-edges of the prim but delicious French tarragon and shallot white wine vinegars that reigned supreme during Julia’s heyday on television program The French Chef in the 1970’s.
In the late 1980’s the Silver Palate took NYC ( and the rest of foodie-America ) by storm with their innovative recipes and new, fresh approach to food. They lit a spark of interest in America for raspberry and blueberry vinegars that began the ascendancy of fruit vinegar as a gourmet ingredient and essential flavor component.
Today, all manner of artisan vinegars can be found. Some tend towards being dry or sweet, others fruity or piquant. Some are thick and dark in color, others are thin, golden, tawny or port-like in color. My pantry is full of flavorsome vinegars, and I use them all with great delight. It is as important to me that I choose the right vinegar to enhance my dish and I select it with as much consideration as I do olive oil, salt, cheese, spices and herbs, and wine. I select vinegar based on the dish and the harmony of flavors that I want the vinegar to bring to the dish.
Despite what many think, vinegar is not spoiled wine. Yes, wine vinegar is made from grapes, and vinegar can be made at home from leftover wine ( plus the addition of a mother, a fermentation keg, etc. ) but the process used to make wine is different than the process used to make vinegar.
The winemaking process converts fruit sugar into alcohol; vinegar-making converts the fruit sugar into a dilute 10-13 % alcohol then employs a bacterial fermentation to convert the alcohol in the fruit sugar into acetic acid, or vinegar. This same process yields stunning, albeit more costly results with other fruit such as apples, pears, cherries or figs.
When skilled vinegar makers use sound, ripe fruit and barrel age their products, great vinegar results. Many European and California wine makers reserve a portion of their grapes for vinegar making. I love the distinctive flavors that these grapes give to the vinegar, and can often taste the ‘wine grape ‘ in the bottle.
Short cuts, speedy production and damaged fruit compromise flavor. Those of us who grew up with flavorless, colorless and just plain nasty vinegar in the pre-Julia days remember all too well when vinegar was anything but gourmet.
The best vinegars adds a tart, sharp, clean, distinct snap to vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces, chutneys and pickles. Vinegars should be a good marriage of flavor and acidity and add something to the conversation that is going on between all of the food elements on the plate.
Great vinegars are very reasonably priced, and most cost less than a good bottle of wine. And vinegar keeps well for years. We all have spice cabinets or spice drawers – why not a vinegar shelf ?
For our selection of personally-selected artisan vinegars, click here: http://www.cooksshophere.com/products/vinegar.htm