One of my strongest beliefs is that food can never be too rich, but I happen to live with a Mr. Sprat who actually has nightmares about foie gras. If it weren’t for vinegar, we probably couldn’t cook together.
Just the other night he made mahi-mahi, abstemiously braised in tamari and mirin while I sauteed yellow crookneck squash in butter with chanterelles and then reflexively added the splash of heavy cream I knew would bring both the flavors and textures together even more luxuriously. As soon as I tried a forkful before salting, though, I knew I had gone too far. The only thing to do was get out the brown rice vinegar and drizzle a little in. That acid touch turned a one-note dish into something so much more nuanced that even the lean lover ate it, and happily.
Vinegar always has that effect, if you know how to use it. Most cooks reach for the bottle only when lettuce is involved, but cooking with it is a different story. Acidity ramps up flavor, balances or counteracts richness (and sweetness) and generally takes food into another dimension. Without it, even potato salad would just be chunky mayonnaise.
These days, any half-equipped cook probably has a virtual wardrobe of vinegars, all of them as essential as salt and olive oil: red wine, white wine, rice wine, balsamic, cider and distilled white. Throw in sherry vinegar, Champagne vinegar, brown rice vinegar, malt vinegar and raspberry vinegar and you’re talking a serious pantry. And there are more every day, it seems, made from Pinot Grigio or Zinfandel or other wines and flavored with tarragon, dill or basil or blueberries and even maple.
Any of them will add vibrancy to food, especially in summer. Just a splash in a soup or a vegetable puree, or a drizzle over grilled meat or fish, is a kick in the flavor. Any sauce tastes livelier with a little vinegar, even something as simple as beurre noisette, literally nut-brown butter. But then anything flat can be elevated with vinegar. Call it the 7% solution.
Vinegar gets its name from the French words for sour wine, which it originated as millenniums ago. But no one can count on leaving a half-finished bottle of disappointing Merlot out and expect to get something worth dressing a salad with, let alone finessing food. The best vinegars are cultivated, the very best in a succession of wood casks that add layers and layers of intense flavor.
Vinegar can be made from any number of other starters too. Apples produce cider vinegar, fermented rice can become rice vinegar, malted barley is turned into malt vinegar, and all reflect their origins in their flavor. Distilled white vinegar is made from grain alcohol, which has no taste.
At the other extreme is balsamic vinegar, which is made from the must of grapes and aged a minimum of 10 years and is so smooth you can drink it. (The name comes from the Italian word for balm.) You can use it in cooking, but you have to use it fast; prolonged heat tends to overwhelm its seductive side and turn it almost gooey. One of the best ways to “cook” with it is just by drizzling it over strawberries or raspberries, or ice cream.
Other vinegars, particularly those with high acid, are especially good for cooking. But even with the most aggressive, the simplest rule is to add vinegar at the beginning of cooking if you want the acid effect, but at the end for pure flavor.
Vinegar at the stove had its heyday at the height of nouvelle cuisine, when sauces veered away from cream and reduced stocks and toward the deceptive lightness of beurre blancs: butter mounted onto reduced vinegar. And those sauces were supplanted in the 1980s and 1990s by vinaigrettes. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s groundbreaking “Simple Cuisine” in 1990 could have been subtitled “Variations on Vinaigrettes.” Just changing the vinegar, or the herbs, could transform any dish.
Chefs are still demonstrating that vinegar can separate the good cooks from the great ones. Thomas Keller makes the simplest sauce for haricots verts seem extraordinary: whipped cream spiked with red wine vinegar. The tartness cuts the richness, the coating is like butter but so much lighter. And as subtle as the sauce is over the beans, when you chill it and spoon it, it’s like the most amazing soft ice cream.
A high-acid vinegar used to deglaze a saute or roasting pan after searing beef, veal, pork, duck or chicken creates a singular foundation for a sauce with surprising vibrancy. Add a few chopped shallots, fresh herbs and a little butter (or stock, if you want to go Sprat on it) and you get a restaurant-worthy finishing touch in no time. Wine or brandy does the same thing, but not with quite the same sharp edge.
Vinegar, particularly a “sweet” one such as balsamic or sherry, can also be used to glaze food, particularly seafood: scallops, shrimp, salmon, mahi-mahi, halibut. Some recipes call for reducing the vinegar and brushing it on when the fish is cooked, but to me that’s too molasses-sweet. I think it’s more effective to swirl the vinegar right out of the bottle into the pan with yes, a little butter, plus a dash of tamari and Dijon mustard for a more rounded flavor.
Vinegar is an excellent medium for slowly braising beef, chicken or duck. The tanginess cuts the richness and adds a surprising foundation of flavor, much more than the usual stock or wine does. Even with meats braised with those more traditional liquids, vinegar can save the meal. A shot of good red wine vinegar adds a jolt of acidity against the fattiness. But even distilled white vinegar works surprisingly well.
In a marinade, vinegar is a natural. Its acidity can add the illusion of tenderness to meat, and the flavor can be reduced to a concentrate in the sauce much better than lemon juice can. I know cooks who even marinate fish very briefly in vinegar to freshen it up.
A splash of vinegar can also jazz up any soup, particularly black bean, lentil or onion. It’s classic in borscht. And it’s even more essential for fresher flavor with canned soups or tomato sauce.
But a drizzle of balsamic vinegar over a frittata or omelet also works to cut through any heaviness.
Tips of the trade
Eating in Hong Kong taught me the most appealing alternative to tartar sauce: rice wine vinegar mixed with a little sugar and garlic. Anything fried that’s dunked in it will taste less greasy and much livelier.
Most of what I know about cooking with vinegar came from trial, error, travel and cookbooks, but one indelible lesson of restaurant school was that hard-cooked eggs are best simmered with cider vinegar and salt. The whites are always perfect, and the flavor is a little cleaner.
I’ve also learned a few new tricks from the inevitable Vinegar Institute, which runs a website called Versatile Vinegar (www.versatilevinegar.org). White vinegar will make a meringue fluffier and gelatin firmer, while any vinegar will draw out the salty taste when boiling a ham.
Vinegar, either cider or white wine, makes the best court bouillon, for poaching fish and shellfish, meat or even vegetables. When you reduce it, you get a multilayered sauce.
The most obvious way to “cook” with vinegar is pickling, which is perfect for summer. Cucumbers are the natural choice, but you can pickle peaches, cherries, onions or shallots. The vinegar should have at least 4% acidity. And though cider vinegar or white vinegar is specified most often, other vinegars change the experience: rice wine is lighter, and Champagne more subtle.
Like the wines they are often made from, vinegars are interchangeable only to an extent, though. Very fruity types such as balsamic and sherry work equal magic, partly because they are aged somewhat the same way. But a really good apple cider vinegar can be used to stew or poach fruit, whether cherries or apples.
Great vinegar is not priced like Heinz’s -- the last time I bought a small bottle of Lustau sherry vinegar from one of the great producers of sherry in Spain, the cashier actually gasped as $20 registered on her screen. But then the best stuff is produced like great wine. Much is made very slowly by the Orleans method, named for the town in France where artisanal vinegar has been coddled and bottled since the 14th century.
And unlike great wine, great vinegar is forever. I still have the first bottle of malt vinegar I ever bought, and that was at least 10 years ago. But that might be because I ration it. I never know when I might need to cut the fat on fish or chips.
One kind of olive oil will get you through most cookbooks, if not most of life, but for maximum flavor you really need a full complement of vinegars. Each variety will work in somewhat different ways.
Apple cider vinegar is the bronze standard for pickling cucumbers, peaches or other produce; the flavor and the acidity are exactly right.
Balsamic at its pricey best is the cognac of vinegars, smooth and mellow, but even at its cheapest is still indispensable. It always produces a balanced vinaigrette but can dress a salad even on its lonesome. It’s superb drizzled over ripe tomatoes, freshly sliced or just out of the oven, and even better over summer berries, especially with a little black pepper. And because it’s such a sublime blend of tart and sweet, it goes well with foie gras.
Brown rice vinegar is like the balsamic of Asia and can be used in mellow vinaigrettes. But it also can be splashed into a rich sauce to cut the heaviness, drizzled over grilled or roasted vegetables or sprinkled on fried or sauteed fish the way lemon juice usually is.
Champagne vinegar can go anywhere its red or white wine cousins would, but its subtler taste and hint of luxury make it ideal for cutting the richness in a braised dish, such as a blanquette de veau, or for tarting up a cold soup.
Distilled white vinegar is probably most useful for cleaning, but one chef, Tom Valenti, swears by a splash to offset the richness in almost everything he braises in “Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals.”
Fruit vinegars -- raspberry, blueberry, etc. -- are like a cross between balsamic and wine vinegars. To my taste, a little goes a long way in a vinaigrette, but any of these can transform the dressing on a spinach or even pasta salad. Raspberry vinegar is also great at cutting and counteracting the richness of anything creamy, whether classic Yorkshire pudding, rice or tapioca pudding. And, like all vinegars, it can be used to deglaze a pan after roasting or sauteing meat or seafood.
Malt vinegar is most commonly a ketchup substitute on French fries and fried fish, but it will also make an intriguing vinaigrette and a glaze for broiled chicken.
Red wine vinegar is made for salads. Blend it with olive or canola oil and seriously good Dijon mustard, and there could be no better vinaigrette. Its sophisticated flavor also does more than apple cider vinegar for a good and mayonnaise-y potato salad.
Rice wine vinegar is very mild and can be used in light vinaigrettes, especially with sesame oil. Mixed with a little minced garlic and a touch of sugar, it makes an excellent dipping sauce for fried foods, particularly squid.
Sherry vinegar is more acidic than balsamic and produces a more robust vinaigrette. It seems especially suited to potatoes. A tablespoonful or so in a soup, whether hot lentil or chilled gazpacho, can sharpen the flavors.
White wine vinegar is another essential building block for vinaigrettes but, because of its color and lighter flavor, is even more useful in a beurre blanc or court bouillon.