Illustration of vinegar barrels and bottles

Issue No. 140: A buyer’s guide to vinegar

Vinegar is more than a pantry staple; according to the Internet it’s a brand new life hack. Not only can it brighten a fresh salad with flavor, it can decalcify your shower head, keep colds away all winter long, and turn dull pennies shiny again!

Great tasting vinegar takes lots of care and time to create. Large industrial producers shorten the vinegar making process from months and years to days and hours by adding chemicals like sulfuric acid, nitric acid and muriatic acid. Use those vinegars to spiffy up your pennies.

Traditionally made vinegars have none of that nonsense. They take a long time to mature and can’t compete on price with industrial models. The right vinegar can accentuate and transform cuisine. Here’a a primer:

Wine vinegar

You can’t make wine vinegar without first making wine. The quality of the finished vinegar depends directly on the quality of the wine used to make it. The best wine vinegars typically aren’t labeled as just “red wine vinegar” or “white wine vinegar.” Instead, they are often described by the particular wine used, like Rioja red wine or Txakoli white wine.

To make traditional wine vinegar, barrels are partially—but never fully—filled with wine. Leaving room at the top of the barrels allows air and bacteria to interact with the liquid. The bacteria convert the alcohol into water and acetic acid—the molecule that gives all vinegars their punchy, sour acidity. The vinegar maker takes over from there, blending and aging the vinegar till they’re happy with the flavor.

Flavors: bright, tangy, crisp

Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, deglazing pans, soups, pickling

Rice wine vinegar

Like wine vinegar production, except made from sake. Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. The better the sake, the better the rice wine vinegar. The quality of the sake is related to how much the rice is “polished.” Polishing removes the fats and proteins in the outer layers of the rice kernel, leaving the cleaner, more delicate flavors of the starchy core. Higher quality sake is made from rice that is more polished.

Most rice vinegar makers buy pre-made sake and convert it. The best makers, like the team at Kyoto-based Iio Jozo, start by making their own high quality sake. Then they convert it into vinegar.

Flavors: mild, fruity, complex

Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, sushi, delicate foods

Malt vinegar

Like wine vinegar production, only with beer. Grain—in this case barley—is germinated in water, then dried in a roaster after it begins to sprout. The process converts the starch in the barley into sugar, which changes into beer when fermented the first time, and then into vinegar after it ferments again. The longer the malt vinegar ages, the smoother it gets.

Flavors: nutty, a little earthy, slightly sweet

Best uses: pickling, sprinkling as a condiment, marinades

Fruit vinegar

The best fruit vinegars are made from 100% fruit wine, which is simply wine made from a fruit other than grapes. Like wine vinegars, months or years of aging round out the flavors.

Quicker, more industrial production methods involve steeping fruit in white vinegar and “infusing” the fruit’s flavors into the vinegar. Unlike the bright fruit flavors of 100% fruit wine vinegar, infused fruit vinegars tend to be either overly sweet or sharp, borderline harsh. In either they case, they generally offer only a whisper of the fruit flavor they claim.

Flavors: soft, sweet, fruity

Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, deglazing pans, mixers, mocktails

Cider vinegar

Left unrefrigerated, freshly pressed sweet apple cider will ferment into hard apple cider within a few days. After a few more weeks at ambient temperature, it’ll ferment a second time into cider vinegar.

The best cider vinegars are made with excellent apples—no windfalls or scraps or scrapings from previous pressings. Long barrel aging allows the vinegar to mellow and mature.

Flavors: bright, tangy, earthy

Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, slaws, pickling, brightening rich dishes like baked beans or pulled pork

Balsamic vinegar

Historically, balsamic comes from the northern Italian towns of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Making traditional balsamic vinegar starts with grape must, AKA grape juice before it’s wine. To begin, you cook the must down to half its original volume. Then you place it in a set of wooden barrels with “mother” vinegar to kickstart fermentation. After a year or so the young vinegar is blended into smaller barrels that hold older balsamic. From there, it ages in the barrels for years before bottling. A tiny proportion of the balsamic on the market today is made this way. You can find it in small, sleek bottles labeled as “aceto balsamico tradizionale.”

Most balsamic for sale today is made of primarily wine vinegar with only a small percentage of grape must (and a dose of caramel coloring to give it the classic dark color of balsamic). These vinegars age for only a few months. They are sweet, but lack the nuance and balance of a traditional aged balsamic.

There are some balsamic makers who strike a balance between the traditional and modern methods, using just a small amount of wine vinegar and aging in wooden barrels for years to create pleasing, balanced balsamics that are affordable enough for every day use. To find a good balsamic, always check the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be grape must. Avoid balsamics that list wine vinegar as the first ingredient, or that add caramel coloring.

Flavors: rich, sweet, flavors of dark fruits like raisins or plums

Best uses: vinaigrettes, marinades, finishing grilled meats, drizzling on strawberries or ice cream

Sherry vinegar

From southern Spain, the juice of Palomino grapes is converted first into wine, then fortified with grape brandy to make sherry. Sherry vinegar is then made with the solera method: similar to making balsamic, the sherry is placed in a set of oak barrels with “mother” vinegar. It then spends years aging and blending in the barrels before bottling.

Flavors: sweet, crisp, light

Best uses: vinaigrettes, sprinkling on seafood or roast vegetables, brightening tomato soup or fruit salad