Is your kitchen a hoarder's paradise of bottles and jars? Strange ingredients you rarely use, and versatile ingredients you never experiment with? Whether you're a new cook trying to stock your cupboards, or an experienced food lover exploring your own pantry, this column will shine a light on the mysteries of the larder so that you know what you're looking at, why it exists, and how to use it.
We begin with vinegar, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous ingredients in any kitchen. It's also an ingredient you could easily find yourself owning in half a dozen different varieties.
In the simplest terms, vinegar is a mild acid diluted in water. It's typically made by exposing ethanol to oxygen to create bacterial fermentation.
If you're anything like me, that string of words will leave you scratching your head, but consider this: far from needing to be made in a lab by serious people with white coats and glass flasks, vinegar has been created in different cultures continents apart without the need to share a secret formula. How? Because, alcohol, that's how.
Vinegar is alcohol gone rogue. I mentioned before that vinegar is made from ethanol; another name for ethanol is "drinking alcohol." Multiple cultures 'discovered' their own versions of alcohol when they left sugary produce to ferment, whether it was grains, fruits, or honey. In many cases this surely resulted in rot, but in some happy accidents it resulted in booze.
Sometimes, the booze was left exposed to the air and another happy accident led to vinegar. Rather than throw it out as a kitchen disaster, some clever cook realized that vinegar has its uses.
The first vinegars probably weren't used as a flavor enhancer, but as a preservative. Storing produce in vinegar keeps it edible through the winter, but it also noticeably changes the flavor. Pickling switched on our palates to vinegar's sour flavour.
The name "vinegar" comes from the French for "sour wine," and wine vinegars have been produced in France since at least the time of the Roman occupation. Red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar are still common varieties, and the supermarket versions are basically interchangeable in recipes. Higher grades of wine vinegar are more distinctive, and varieties include sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar, and vinegars based on specific wines like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and ice wine.
Balsamic vinegar, the sweet, dark, viscous liquid so excellent in a salad dressing or as a dip for bread, is not really vinegar at all. It's not made from alcohol; it's made from concentrated grape juice aged in wooden casks. Derivative versions made from wine vinegar, caramel and grape concentrate are very common and much cheaper.
Anything that has been used to make alcohol has also been used to make vinegar, including sugar cane, fruit and honey. That bottle of clear distilled "white" vinegar in your cupboard is made from grain alcohol, just like vodka and gin. For cider, there's cider vinegar; for sake there's rice vinegar. If you're wondering why there's no such thing as beer vinegar...there is!
Malt vinegar, the dark brown stuff that Brits sprinkle on fish and chips, is made from malted barley, just like beer and whisky. Obviously some additional work goes into making sure your malt vinegar, your beer, and your single malt Scotch do not all taste the same!
Unlike alcohol, however, vinegar will not get you drunk, because the process of making vinegar turns the alcohol into acid. You don't need to avoid vinegar if you're avoiding alcohol, and you shouldn't start doing shots of vinegar out of desperation when you run out of wine.
The most common culinary use of vinegar outside of pickling is to add a sour note to food. That can mean using it as a base for a sauce or a dressing, or it can mean sprinkling a little on a finished dish, to balance out sweetness or to enhance saltiness without adding more salt.
The big question, then, is how many types of vinegar do you really need in your cupboard?
I find that a robust red wine vinegar is the most useful. It's the go-to vinegar for vinaigrettes, and it can stand up to other strong flavors. The great thing about vinegars is that they're easy to match to their cuisines. For North American and Northern European cuisines, cider vinegar is a natural fit. Rice vinegar is irreplaceable in Asian recipes, because its flavor is subtle and delicate. It's essential seasoning for sushi rice.
I always keep all three of those in my pantry, plus two more. Balsamic vinegar is a great finishing touch for so many dishes, and I can't live without malt vinegar for those occasions when I treat myself to chips, even though it's so robust that I rarely use it for anything else.
In theory, there's no reason not to keep a wide range of vinegars in your pantry and use whichever one best complements the flavor of your dish. Vinegars may discolor or develop sediment over time, but they're generally cheap and they keep for years.