Sourness is one of the basic flavors we perceive, and is caused by
acidity. It can provide lightness and interest to food that would
otherwise be heavy or bland - note the radical difference adding a little
lemon juice to a bean soup makes. Of course sourness can also be an indicator
that food is going bad - vinegars and the like are made by carefully
Vinegars are made by fermentation from many foods that have a high sugar or starch content. Fruits and other sugar sources go through a double or triple fermentation: from sugar to alcohol (by yeast) then alcohol to acetic acid (by bacteria). Starchy foods go through either malting (barley) or a starch to sugar fermentation (rice), then sugar to alcohol, alcohol to acetic acid. High grade vinegars will then be aged in wooden barrels or pottery jars to mature the flavors.
With the exception of White Distilled Vinegar, vinegars carry a distinctive flavor from the ingredients used, and are affected by the quality of those ingredients, so taste will not be uniform brand to brand.
Many health and healing claims are made for vinegars, particularly apple cider vinegar, but actual medical research seems to be pretty scarce so the evidence is all "hear-say".
Vinegars. like oils, are very important cooking ingredients and a well prepared kitchen stocks Apple Cider, Rice, Balsamic (Industrial), White Distilled and Wine vinegars, with others added according to individual taste and ethnicity of the cuisine.
Apple Cider Vinegar -
[Aceto di Mele (Italy); Apfelessig (German)]
Made from apples fermented into hard cider, this vinegar is quite popular in the U.S. - but beware! Most of what tries to pass as "Apple Cider Vinegar" in the stores is nothing of the kind - look carefully and you will find it's made from white distilled vinegar with apple juice added - it's just "apple flavored". Even the leading brand, Heinz, is real in quart bottles or smaller, and fake in larger containers.
Apple cider vinegar has a large cult following among the health conscious, but little actual medical research has been done, so the health claims are called "hear-say". In any case, it's not likely to do you any harm, and many say it will help.
Cider vinegar is harsh for some applications, and its flavor may not
work well with some others, and it will not be appropriate for many ethnic
cuisines, especially of the tropics. Some older ethnic cookbooks in English
call for cider vinegar because they presume you can't get the right kind.
The most common is Heinz brand, available just about everywhere (quart size
or smaller), other brands available in some locations. More flavorful
cider vinegars are made in France and Italy.
To the left in the photo is a natural cane vinegar that is my favorite vinegar. I use it anywhere the color won't be a problem. Datu Puti brand Sukang Iloco (Native (natural) Vinegar). The ingredient list is: "Naturally fermented from sugar cane juice". The sample to the right is Datu Puti brand Sukang Maasim. Ingredients: cane vinegar, water. I suspect an unstated clouding agent is included in that vinegar - Filipinos seem to expect vinegars to be slightly cloudy. The light vinegar is harsher with a less distinct flavor compared to the dark. Both are 4.5% acidity.
Note that in the Philippines, the famous Iloco vinegar is often flavored
with the leaves of samak (Macaranga),
but the FDA may object to that version here as Macaranga are spurges,
and spurges are commonly toxic. Sukang Iloco is an ingredient Vigan Longanisa
sausage as well as in many other regional recipes, and as a dip, and for
medicinal purposes (disinfectant and on the forhead for fevers).
Black Rice Vinegar [Brown Rice Vinegar, Chinkiang Vinegar, Chekiang vinegar, Chenkong vinegar, Zhejiang vinegar] is particularly popular in southern China. Brands made in Chinkiang (Zhejiang) province are considered the best. Like Balsamic it is dark and has a deep flavor, but the taste is very different. Black vinegar is often used as a dipping sauce. Gold Plum is often recommended as the best brand of Chinkiang and is the one I use. Ingredients: glutinous rice and salt.
Ladchen Vinegar is an example of other dark vinegars. The one I have on hand, from China, is made from sorghum, barley and peas. Flavor is quite similar to the Chinkiang, but a shade lighter.
Red Rice Vinegar [Red Rice Vinegar] doesn't look a whole lot redder than the black, but the flavor is much lighter and almost spicy. It is used as a dipping sauce and in soups, with noodles and in seafood dishes. Often recommend brands are Pearl River Bridge and Koon Chun but the one in the photo is Pat Chun. Ingredients: water, glutinous rice, salt, FD&C red #40. Acidity 2.5%.
White Rice Vinegar [Rice Wine Vinegar] is similar to the Japanese
and is used in stir fries, pickles and sweet-and-sour dishes. It is milder
than the others and with a more delicate flavor. It is available in regular
and "Gourmet Aged" grades in markets serving an East Asia community. The
photo specimen is the darker "Aged" version, which I hold is worth the
higher price, from Kong Yen Foods. Ingredients: rice, malt. Acidity
Coconut Vinegar -
[Sukang Niyog (Philippine)]
Coconut vinegar is used in India and Southeast Asia, including the
Philippines. It is mild with a somewhat musty flavor. The photo shows a
naturally fermented vinegar that has an almost smoky flavor. Ingredients:
coconut water. The sample on the right has a less distinct flavor.
Ingredients: natural vinegar, water, 4% acidity. Both are products of the
Philippines. Coconut vinegar can be found in markets serving a Philippine
community (around here there's one near every major hospital).
These are generally white or red wine vinegar with herbs and spices added
to the bottle, or infusions added to the vinegar. The objective is to capture
the flavors in an easily usable form. Tatragon vinegar is probably the
best known. Since the flavor of tarragon doesn't survive drying, vinegar is
a way to deliver that flavor when fresh tarragon isn't available. Note that
there are health risks to doing these yourself, so it's generally better
to purchase them. The photo sample is Heinz Tarragon Vinegar. Ingredients:
distilled white vinegar, malt vinegar, spice oil (tarragon), water, 5%
Since vinegar can be made from anything with sufficient sugar, and since it
takes on flavors from the ingredients from which it is made, the field is
wide open for production of specialty vinegars. Examples are Pomegranate,
Orange and Raspberry vinegars. The photo sample is Pineapple vinegar,
very nice for salads
Grape Vinegar -
This is wine vinegar made in Islamic countries where you'd roast in Hell for eternity if Allah saw you were making wine - but you can't make vinegar without making alcohol first. Some of it's pretty good wine vinegar too. Somehow the Turks got a special dispensation from Allah because they make and consume alcoholic beverages (either that or they're all going straight to Hell with the rest of us), but for the rest of Islam it's forbidden.
This vinegar is generally made in a single multi-stage process so the
makers can't be accused of making wine. Note that during the (long, long
passed) height of Islamic culture, wine was made and enjoyed in countries
where you'd be flogged or beheaded for it today. The photo specimen is from
Syria. Ingredients: grape vinegar, water. As to the strength, the label
says "Natural %", obviously not designed by an English speaking person.
Lemon Vinegar - [Lemon Sirkesi]
Yes, even lemons have enough sugar to ferment into vinegar. This product
definitely has a lemon flavor, but also a vinegar flavor. The photo sample
was made in Turkey. Ingredients: lemon vinegar, acid regulator (citric acid),
lemon emulsion, antioxidant (sodium metabisulfite), natural lemon flavor.
This is a premier dipping vinegar (as in English fish and chips) because its
effect is less harsh than other common vinegars. I used to use a lot of it
before I settled on the naturally fermented Sukang Iloco,
but I still use it for specific recipes. Malt vinegar is properly made by
malting (sprouting) barley (and perhaps other grains) to turn the starches
to sugar. The malt is then fermented into ale, and the ale fermented into
vinegar. Here in Los Angeles very few markets carry it, but many restaurant
supply stores do - to supply British style restaurants. The photo sample,
from Smart and Final, boasts ingredients: malt vinegar, water, 5% acidity.
Palm Vinegar -
[Sukang Paombong (Philippine)]
Sukang Paombong is another of the fine vinegars made in the Philippines.
with a rich flavor and 4.5% acidity. Ingredients: fermented nipa palm sap,
water, cloudifier. Interesting, though "cloudifier" is mentioned, it is much
less cloudy than other Philippine vinegars that do not declare one.
Raisin Vinegar - see Grape Vinegar.
Rice Vinegar - [Rice Wine Vinegar]
In the U.S. this generally means Japanese or Japanese style white rice vinegar of "Industrial" quality (see also Chinese Vinegars for red, black and white versions). Rice vinegar is made by fermenting rice into beer which ferments into vinegar (though it's a single continuous process that doesn't make drinkable sake).
In Japan top grade rice vinegar is made in small batches in clay jars,
but that commonly available in the U.S. is an undistinguished industrial
product. It's good enough for many common uses and has the advantage of
being affordable by mortals - but the photo specimen is Aged Chinese white
rice vinegar which I much prefer (the common product is lighter in color).
This product is made from grain alcohol (cheap vodka), distilled for purity
and diluted with water to 5% acetic acid. It's purely an industrial product,
but a good choice for many uses (in the water for poaching eggs, for instance)
because of it's purity, lack of flavor and very low price. How cheap depends
on brand, but since it's all just 5% acetic acid in distilled water, there
really isn't much room for brand quality differentiation. White Distilled
Vinegar also finds a wide variety of household cleaning and deodorizing uses.
Red & White Wine Vinegar:
Champaign, Merlot, Cabernet, etc:
Chianti Vinegar - an excellent and quite distinctive deep red varietal wine vinegar (at least the brands I've tried have been). It is made of Chianti D.O.C.G wine and is generally shipped at an acidity of around 7.5%, considerably higher than most wine vinegars so adjust recipes to suit.
This is a cheap imitation of "True Balsamic", commonly made from wine vinegar, concentrated grape must and caramel coloring. "Industrial" has the advantage of being priced to allow actual use in food rather than as an object of worship.
White Balsamic is a version that doesn't even try to look like real balsamic. It's made of white wine vinegar and grape must with no caramel color added, and filtered to get rid of as much color from the grapes as possible. It has a Clearer taste than regular Industrials.
"Industrial" balsamic production centers around Modena Italy where the
true balsamic is made. Many different formulas are used, so brands vary -
just taste them and pick ones you like. Actually, "industrial" is better
than "true" for many recipes, and is the most commonly used variety in Modena
itself. It generally runs from $3 to $20 for 500ml.
Tradizionale Vecchio (12 years)
and Tradizionale Extra Vecchio (25 years) are made in Modena Italy from
cooked grape must and are aged in a series of barrels made of different woods.
Production is certified by a consortium and it comes only in the special shaped
bottle shown in the photo. A 6-tablespoon (100-ml) bottle of Extra Vecchio
25-year is only a little over $100, but if you want the 50-year, it's gonna
Many "Balsamics" are made by more or less traditional methods but do not
qualify for the special bottle. They are usually made starting with wine and
must rather than just cooked must, but are given a good aging in wood barrels.
Prices range from $15 to over $100 for an 8-oz (250-ml) bottle. These
vinegars are often put up in fancy "gourmet" bottles, but never the
"one true bottle".
Other Souring Agents
Lemon Juice - Lime Juice
- [Amchur, Amchur powder]
This is a popular souring agent in India, particularly in dry regions where
lemons and limes cannot be had. Being dry it has the advantage of being
easily stored and transported. It is available both in powdered form as
shown, and as dried chunks of mango. It is available in markets serving
an Indian community.
Peak availability of fresh sour plums in California is in May. They are
picked unripe, but fully hardened seed and tendency to ripen to yellow
demonstrate these are not simply regular plums picked while still very small.
They are typically between 1 inch and 1-1/2 inches in diameter and weigh
about 3/4 ounce each.
Umeboshi Vinegar -
[Umezu, Ume su (Japan)]
Technically not a vinegar, but a pink brine with a sour-fruity taste. This is a by-product from manufacturing Japanese pickled plums (umeboshi), which are themselves extremely sour. Basically, it is a nearly saturated solution of sea salt, made sour and given a lightly fruity flavor from preserving unripe plums in it. It is given a light reddish color by sisho (perilla) leaves. It can be used much as a vinegar would (keeping the high salt contnet in mind). It's considered good for use in salad dressings, and especially for flavoring steamed vegetables.
Umeboshi Vinegar has been adopted by the Michio Kushi Macrobiotics
sect and by several other health food sects as a miracle health
ingredient - if you can consider anything that salty to be healthy (1
teaspoon contains 44% of the recommended daily value for sodium). The
Macrobiotics people say it's very popular in Japan, a point which my
23 Japanese cookbooks have apparently all missed, completely.
The photo specimen was made by me from unripe grapes purchased from a
multi-ethnic market serving Anatolian, Caucasian and Near and Middle Eastern
communities. The grapes were simply ground up in a food processor, strained
and frozen for future use. It is very sour and somewhat fruity.
Links to Vinegar Sites