Various Souring Agents Vinegars & Souring Agents

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 controlled spoilage.

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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)]
Glass of Apple Cider Vinegar

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.

Balsamic, "Industrial"
Glass of Industrial Balsamic Vinegar

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.

Balsamic, "True"
Bottle of True Balsamic Vinegar

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 cost ya.
Sources: V6 Parma Shop.

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".

Cane Vinegar
Glasss of different Cane Vinegars This vinegar is made wherever sugar cane is grown, but commercially exported from the Philippines, a land where good vinegar is really appreciated. Cane juice is fermented as if to make rum, but instead of distilling, it is fermented into vinegar. Quality and flavor vary by brand.

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". It was purchased from a Philippine market in Los Angeles (Eagle Rock) for 2017 US $1.69 for 25.4 ounces.

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 in Vigan Longanisa sausage as well as in many other regional recipes, and as a dip, and for medicinal purposes (disinfectant and on the forehead for fevers).

Chinese Vinegars
Glasses of various Chinese Vinegars Chinese vinegar comes in three basic varieties, Black, Red and White. All can be made from rice, but the black may also be made from other grains. Quality variations for Chinese products are extreme. Check the ingredient labeling but be aware it is often as wrong as the grammar in the instructions you get with Chinese products. Best strategy, find a good brand and stick with it.

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 above 6%.

Coconut Vinegar   -   [Sukang Niyog (Philippine)]
Glasses of Coconut Vinegars

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. I suspect there is also an unstated clouding agent, as Filipinos seem to expect vinegars to be somehat cloudy. 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).

Coconut Sap Vinegar   -   [Sukang Tuba (Philippine)]
Glass of Coconut Sap Vinegar

This vinegar is naturally fermented from the same flower sap that coconut sugar is made from. The photo specimen is Mama Sita's brand, and the cloudiness is natural, with a slight sediment on the bottom of the bottle. Ingred: Fermented coconut nectar. This is a premium vinegar, to be used as a dip and in salad dressings. It is aromatic and has a vague sweetness. It was purchased from a Philippine market in Los Angeles (Eagle Rock) for 2017 US $1.69 for 11.8 ounces.
Date Vinegar
This vinegar is popular in the Near East, but I haven't noticed it here in Los Angeles - I'm sure it's here somewhere, I'll just have to look more carefully.

Flavored Vinegars
Glass of Tarragon Vinegar

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% acidity.

Fruit Vinegars
Glass of Pineapple Vinegar

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   -   [Raisin Vinegar]
Glass of 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.

Kachampuli   -   [Kaachambuli]
Bottle of Kachampuli

This is the "vinegar" of the Kodava (Coorg) people in southwest India. It is made from slightly fermented juice of Gummi-Gutta fruit, simmered down to a very dark red-purple sour, but also fruity, syrup. It is on hand in every Kodava kitchen, and sold commercially in the region, but not much elsewhere. Details and suggested substitutes can be found on our Details and Cooking page.

Lemon Vinegar   -   [Lemon Sirkesi]
Glass of Lemon Vinegar

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.

Malt Vinegar
Glass of Malt Vinegar

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)]
Glass of Palm Vinegar

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]
Glass of 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).

White Distilled
Glass of White Distilled Vinegar

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.

Wine Vinegars
Glasses of Red and White Wine Vinegars As the name implies, these vinegars are made from wine. Naturally, they vary greatly with the quality of the wine used and the process. Once again we have that contrast between traditional (good wine and aged in oak barrels) and industrial production, and this is reflected in the price. High grade wine vinegars are made in Italy, Spain and in the wine growing regions of California. Many California wine vinegars are "artisanal" single varietal products so tend to be a bit upscale, pricewise. I've seen none from France around here. I'm sure they fetch a good price over on the West Side, San Francisco and New York - but I see WalMart sells some for around US $28 for 500ml - that's a lot more than most of the California vinegars.

Red & White Wine Vinegar:
Under these names are general purpose wine vinegars for every day use. They vary considerably in quality, with major brand name products from American manufacturers generally at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. Select a brand you like that you can get consistently in bottles of appropriate size for you usage. For general everyday use I buy L'Aretino, an Italian import that's pretty good at an acceptable price for both red and white.

Champaign, Merlot, Cabernet, etc:
Single varietal wine vinegars are generally traditionally made and exhibit the qualities of the wines they are made from. California wine vinegars are predominantly of this type. They are, of course, at a higher price, so should be reserved for more sophisticated sauces and dressings where their distinctive qualities will be evident.

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.

Sherry Vinegar
Glass of Sherry Vinegar Once this was given away by embarrassed sherry wine makers when a batch went bad, then somebody decided it could be sold. Now it's considered the king of wine vinegars, is highly prized and will carry a certificate of origin logo. It's also more expensive than most other wine vinegars. Like balsamic, it goes through a series of barrels, but that's in the wine stage. It will have further aging in barrels after being converted to vinegar. Caution: sherry vinegar is usually about 8% (8°) acidity, considerably stronger than other vinegars which tend to average 4% to 5%. Adjust your recipe whenever substituting one for the other.

Other Souring Agents

Lemon Juice - Lime Juice
Lemon and Lime, cut Lemons and Limes provide sourness through their content of citric acid. Their flavors do, however, differ somewhat, so the appropriate citrus should be used in recipes. Limes are a tropical and subtropical fruit. Lemons are a subtropical and temperate fruit. Which one you should use depends on the climate of the cuisine's origin. Many older cookbooks specify lemon juice where lime juice would be more appropriate because in times past limes were not nearly as available in North America. Persian (Tahiti) limes and Key Limes are effectively the same, except you get a lot more juice out of a Persian.

Citric Acid
Citric Acid Crystal Powder Citric acid, in colorless crystalline form, is easily available and cheap. For uses were flavor is not an issue, as in the water that keeps cut apples and artichokes from browning (don't use it for potatoes, acid hardens them), it is much more convenient than actual lemons. Note that citric acid is much more effective than vinegar for preventing browning and similar uses.

Amchur   -   [Amchur powder, Green Mango; Mangifera indica]
Amchur (Green Mango) 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. Called for by many recipes from northern India, it is very sour with a slight sweetness and just a bit resinous. Use it for marinades where it has the same tenderizing effect as lemon juice (1 teaspoon amchur powder is equivalent to 3 tablespoons lemon juice) and in curries. It is available both in powdered form as shown, and as dried chunks of mango. It is available in markets serving an Indian community.

Sour Plum
Whole Sour Plums Sour plums are the sweet / sour of choice in Georgia (former Socialist Republic). Apparently they have purple ones there, but the sour plums seasonably available here in Los Angeles are green. I like to snack on them, crunchy and moderately juicy, sweet and sour. Dried ones, which are available for a longer season, are about the color of unsulfured apricots.

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.

Sumac Powder This is a very popular, but fairly mild, souring agent in the Near East, sold alone and as a component of herb mixes, particularly with thyme (Zatar). Caution: Don't try to make this at home. American Sumac is not the same variety and can cause allergic reactions and poisoning. Sumac is available in markets serving a Near or Middle Eastern community.

Forms of Tamarind Tamarind is from a large bean pod born by the Tamarind tree. The large brown seeds are surrounded with a sticky paste that is both sweet and sour. Though of African origin, it is immensely popular in India and Southeast Asia. It is also used in Africa, and now in Mexico and Central America as well. It is easily available in several forms in just about any Asian or Latin American market. For more information on this important tree see our Tamarind page.

Umeboshi Vinegar   -   [Umezu, Ume su (Japan)]
Glass of Ume su

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 content 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.

Verjuice   -   [Verjus]
Bowl of Verjuice Not vinegar, but used in a similar way, verjuice is the juice of unripe grapes. It is essential for reconstructing Medieval and Renaissance recipes from before vinegar production was reliable. It used to be almost impossible to find in the U.S. but is now being turned out by California wineries.

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.   Details and Cooking.

Links to Vinegar Sites

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