I’ve been in the dark about vinegar — what exactly it’s made from and how it’s produced — and so, I suspect, have you.
Even in this age of enlightened (and sometimes romanticized) scrutiny of our food sources, vinegar sits in a culinary blind spot, waiting for cooks to notice. Sour old vinegar gets taken for granted.
I rely on it, though, absolutely. I add a splash of vinegar when I want to shine a light on foods in a way that salt alone cannot.
Vinegar’s acidic punch plays up all that is sweet, spicy, or earthy. Additionally, vinegar can have the effect of making these flavors taste cleaner and lighter than they otherwise would. Try a beet salad without vinegar (and no cheating with lemon juice), and you’ll see what I mean.
Maybe we take vinegar for granted because we no longer take the months required to make our own vinegar. Few of us keep stoneware crocks of the stuff in various stages of development.
Although I’m lucky to have restaurant-quality vinegars available to me in my work as a chef, I recently looked into how commercial vinegars are made. After all, I have to shop for groceries, too, in stores featuring shelves of vinegar made by companies I know nothing about.
Vinegar quality depends on two things: the vinegar’s source material (what the vinegar is made from) and the length of time, if any, the vinegar is allowed to age and develop flavors.
Vinegar can be made from any sugar, making for a broad spectrum of choices. Besides wine vinegar, there is cane vinegar, malt vinegar, cider vinegar, East Asian black vinegar, purple sweet potato vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and vinegars made from white and red rice.
Regardless of the source material, you should be able to detect other flavors in vinegar besides tartness. Look for notes of fruit, caramel, wine, sweetness, herbs, or vanilla, for example. Should you choose to conduct a vinegar tasting, you’ll want to ease the condiment’s sting with chunks of neutral white bread for dipping. And please, don’t do a taste test first thing in the morning; your taste buds will suffer.
All vinegars are made from a two-part fermentation process. The source material, usually fruit or grains, is initially fermented, creating alcohol. Then bacteria (acetobacter) are added, which in the presence of oxygen converts alcohol to acetic aced. Acetic acid is what gives vinegar its sour flavor.
In the traditional French process of making vinegar, known as the Orleans method, wine is fermented with acetobacter in wooden barrels or covered vats with screened air vents. Complete acetification takes months.
Modern commercial production of vinegar, on the other hand, speeds up the process by forcing air and cells of acetic-acid bacteria through the fermenting liquid, which is held in stainless-steel tanks. The two most commonly used processes are called “rapid generator process” and “submerged culture fermentation” or “submerged aeration.”
Praise for the little-used Orleans method, a slow technique that requires great resources of time and space, comes easily. Truly unique and rounded flavors come from slow acetification in wooden barrels.
I love my bottles of Orleans-method vinegars made from red wine and late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which can run as high as $11 for a 375-milliliter bottle. Their flavors are so concentrated and complex that my salads need less dressing when I use them to make vinaigrette.
Too bad there’s no way to know, from their labels, that these vinegars are made using the Orleans method; I learned of them from a colleague. Later, a retailer told me about the slow Orleans process. But I’ve not yet seen a vinegar labeled “Orleans method.”
Do you appreciate the layers of aroma and complexity found in a nice glass of wine? Well, some supermarket brands of red-wine vinegar are reportedly made not from wine grapes, but from Concord grapes, the sweet purple grapes that serve as the source material for Manischewitz wine and the jelly in a classic PB & J sandwich.
A vinegar with complex flavors of its own will pick up and enhance the flavors of your food. My Gravenstein apple-cider vinegar (made with the Orleans method) has an aroma of fresh, cold apples, like the farmers’ market in October. This summer it was perfect on coleslaw; its fruitiness accented the peppery green cabbage. In the winter, I’ll use cider vinegar for sweet-and-sour braised red cabbage with onions and apples.
Artisanal vinegar brands readily advertise their sources and method, particularly if they’re unique or specific — for example, “Jerez district” sherry wine “aged in a succession of white-oak casks.”
However, I’ve bought bottles of vinegar that claim to have been aged in oak barrels, and they haven’t tasted as balanced as other lower-priced vinegars.
Confusing matters more, most vinegars labeled “artisanal” are not made using the Orleans method. One California vinegar maker, Karen Fahden of Sonoma Vinegar Works, defends her choice of the quick-generator process, noting that her base materials are wines that have already been aged, thus negating the need for additional aging during the second fermentation.
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