Vinegar: The Unsung Hero
By Grace Singleton, managing partner, Zingerman’s Delicatessen
The unsung hero of the culinary world is most certainly vinegar. Often undervalued and dismissed as unimportant, vinegar can be an afterthought when you’re cooking. In reality, it’s a secret weapon in your kitchen arsenal that helps unlock the subtle hidden flavors.
I am infatuated with vinegar. I always have 5-7 different kinds of vinegar in my pantry to accent the food and drinks I enjoy at home. I find it sad that vinegar isn’t more respected when people are filling their cupboards.
Vinegar is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to add more diverse and complex flavors to almost any dish. Ari, our tastemaker here at Zingerman’s, wrote a great piece about the importance and impact of salt levels in cooking, and I’d like to nominate vinegar as the second most important secret ingredient.
Adding a splash of acidity with vinegar is another trick you can call upon to make flavors stand out and leave all your friends wondering about why your cooking is so darn tasty. For example, adding a little Banyuls wine vinegar to my chili and adding a splash of the Lobato sherry vinegar to my bean soup takes things to the next level.
The wine connection
Vinegar is the lesser known, more flavorful, yet often ostracized cousin of many amazing vintners (winemakers). The same deep and nuanced knowledge we have about wine flavors also apply to vinegar. The types of grape varietals, the ripeness of the harvest, the elevation of the vines, the name and style of the acidifier, the blending and the process of fermentation, all impact the nuanced flavor characteristics available in both wine and vinegar.
The better the original grape and the wine, the better the vinegar. In Europe, many of the best wine producers also make vinegar. A good friend of mine and a wonderful distributor of French and Spanish food, Kitty Keller, often goes to wine shows abroad and asks the vintners about their vinegar. Most have a bottle in the back, under their table – not out for general display. This is a great way to find exceptional vinegar! This isn’t the case in the U.S., however – most U.S. winemakers don’t want vinegar anywhere near their wine production.
Range of flavor
Vinegar can be sweet or savory and can range from mild to bold acidity. Using a small amount of a bold vinegar adds a ton of flavor. There’s a group of vinegar makers in Italy, one of which is San Giacomo, that refuse to water down its vinegar. These vinegars are all naturally fermented and loaded with flavor. Other vinegars are diluted with 20 to 40 percent water to lower acidity and extend vinegar yield.
Some of the sweeter types of vinegars include:
- Balsamic – A true, barrel-aged balsamic vinegar has a beautiful, rich sweetness to it
- Pedro Ximenez – A dark, sweet fortified wine from Spain
- Agrodolce – A lighter-bodied, fruity vinegar that can also be from the balsamic region, made from white grapes
Grape varieties and flavor profiles
Similar to selecting a wine made from a specific grape, individual grape varietals are also present in vinegar. Here’s a brief introduction to a few of my favorite vinegars, all of which are available in the Deli’s retail space.
- Katz Zinfandel & Sauvignon Blanc Vinegar – The Katz Zinfandel made in California is one of my favorites. It has the big, jammy, grapey sweetness of a Zinfandel wine with a balanced amount of acidity and tartness. The Katz Sauvignon Blanc vinegar features the bright, grassy flavors you’d expect in a great wine.
- Rozendal Hibiscus Vinegar – If you want to experience a slightly sweeter, full-flavored vinegar you should try the botanical vinegars made in South Africa by Rozendal – hibiscus is a best seller!
- Gardeny Vermouth Vinegar – This vermouth vinegar, made under the Gardeny label using the Schützenbach method of production is one of the many unique Spanish vinegars we carry.
- O Med Yuzu Vinegar – A wonderful, citrusy vinegar! Yuzu has lower acidity and more stimulating aromatics than our western citrus. Incredibly versatile, yuzu olive oil brings out the natural flavors beautifully.
The O Med Yuzu vinegar comes in the brightest, most beautiful sunflower yellow bottle. You’ll want to leave it out on the counter and show it off! Fun, beautiful bottles always make me smile when I cook. A fun partner for the Yuzu vinegar is the Alziari olive oil from France. The buttery and silky French olive oil pairs well with the citrusy notes of Yuzu and comes in a stunning blue bottle that you can usually find on display in my kitchen. Just by leaving the yuzu vinegar and Alziari olive oil on your counter, you’ll have your friends oohing & ahhing over your pantry.
How to use vinegar in cooking
Whether you’re making a marinade for meat or fish entrees, a classic vinaigrette for a salad, a fresh vegetable slaw, splashing a little on the side of sauteed vegetables, or just want to drink something refreshing after a long day at work, vinegar can add to and enhance the flavors of most any dish – including dessert. Here are a few of my favorite vinegar applications:
I love making mocktails with vinegar. In addition to the varied health benefits attributed to drinking traditionally-made vinegar, vinegar mocktails are also a good way to drink something fun in a non-alcoholic form. I often like to take a break from drinking alcohol, but I get really bored with drinking just water, and I don’t like to drink too many sweet sodas. To keep my non-alcoholic drinks fun, I always keep a bunch of soda water around and experiment with flavors using special vinegars and fresh herbs.
- Sweet Honey Mocktail – If you like to experiment, try some fresh berries muddled with a little fresh mint and some of the Mieli Thun honey vinegar, and top it off with some soda water.
- Cool Cucumber Mocktail – If you prefer something a little less sweet, a fresh peeled and seeded cucumber can be muddled with a little fresh thyme or rosemary and combined with the Navarino rosemary & thyme vinegar from Greece. Once you have your mix, top it with soda water and you’ve got a cool, refreshing beverage!
Many roast marinades aren’t complete without a little vinegar. Play around with different combinations of red wine vinegar, olive oil and fresh, ground spices to add some different flavors.
I like to make a light vinaigrette to serve with fish dishes. Sauteed lake perch with a light cava vinaigrette adds a nice accent without overwhelming the delicate flavors of the perch. Putting a splash of the Balsamella vinegar (a thick cooked must vinegar made from apples by San Giacomo in Italy) on roasted, or boiled rutabaga. The sweetness of the apple flavor makes a nice contrast to the slightly bitter earthy flavors of the rutabaga.
Fresh strawberry season for Michigan arrives in late spring. A great way to finish your day with something sweet is to drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over some strawberries. It’s a refreshing, slightly sweet treat that you can eat as it is or served over some vanilla gelato from Zingerman’s Creamery.