Let’s talk about vinegar. Vinegar is an acidic solution of water and acetic acid. Vinegar is produced through fermentation, that is, a process by which microorganisms are used to convert a specific component in a food into something else. In alcohol production yeasts are used to consume the sugar in a preparation and excrete ethanol. In vinegar production acetobacters convert ethanol into acetic acid. Vinegars, yes plural, are going to be absolutely crucial when they happen to come up in a recipe so you better have the right one (I will cover substitutions later). Vinegar adds more than just acidity, different vinegars carry with them the flavors of their origins, different, but distinguished. Vinegar is aromatic, all the molecules that make up its flavor will rush into the air the first chance they get (keep them closed), which is why they smell so potent. This is a good thing. The aromatic explosion that is vinegar, when used appropriately, can also carry all the other flavors of the meal with it, amplifying it’s presence. Now let’s talk about what you need.
MALT VINEGAR: Malt vinegar is the soy sauce of vinegars. This brew sees more use as a condiment than an ingredient, splashed on French fries or other fried food. However, malt vinegar is also excellent for pickling (easier and more fun than you might think). Having a small bottle of malt vinegar around shouldn’t cost you more than three dollars and will keep forever.
APPLE CIDER VINEGAR: Apple cider vinegar has a very bright and fruity flavor that makes it useful in a wide range of dishes from pies to chutneys. I would strongly recommend having a bottle of apple cider vinegar around, it pops up in so may recipes you never really know when you are going to need it, it doesn’t go bad. Stay safe, buy some.
BALSAMIC VINEGAR: Balsamic Vinegar is very different from other vinegars. It is aged in wood barrels at much higher temperature than other vinegars and because of this undergoes a fair amount of reduction. Thus, balsamic vinegar is thicker (more like a syrup) and sweeter than other vinegars. This means that its uses are more varied. Before I get into that, let’s take a moment to talk about commercial substitutions. You may have noticed I said real sherry vinegar has a different name, that’s because large scale food production companies are run by soulless half-humans who want to make a similar product that does not require the lengthy process of the original, but they would rather you think it is the same thing. Most balsamic vinegar sold in this country is commercial grade distilled vinegar, flavored with caramel syrup. Real balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale di modena) is expensive (Not really) but well worth it. Balsamic vinegar can be used to make some truly incredible glazes and salad dressings, even some exotic jams.
BLACK VINEGAR: This is another Asian staple. It is made from glutinous rice and has an entirely unique flavor. Black vinegar is used in stir-fries, dipping sauces, and even as a condiment on its own. When purchasing this vinegar look for a brand with the word “Chinkiang” on the bottle as this is the name of the Chinese province where it is traditionally brewed.