Vinegar appropriately takes its name from the French term vin aigre, or “sour wine.” It’s made by adding bacteria to any type of alcohol—wine, hard cider, beer—which is then converted into acetic acid. It can be used in everything from salad dressings to sauces.
Red or White Wine Vinegar
These light vinegars have a fruity tang that comes from wine grapes. Some specialty vinegars contain only a specific type of grape, such as Zinfandel. Drizzle wine vinegar over salads, add them to stews, or reduce them to make sauces.
Any vinegar that’s made from wine and then aged can be called balsamic. Used in marinades, dressings, and fruit-based desserts, balsamic vinegar is generally darker, thicker, sweeter, and more complex than red or white wine vinegar. Highly prized Italian tradizionale (“traditional”) balsamics are aged for a minimum of 12 years in oak barrels. Syrupy, highly concentrated, and expensive, they are best reserved for undiluted uses; splash a few drops on vegetables or ice cream to appreciate their pure, intense flavor.
Made from fermented apple juice, cider vinegar has a sweet-tart taste that’s comparatively mellow and has less of an acidic bite than other vinegars. It’s particularly good with pork and adds a fruity note to salad dressings, slaws, and meat marinades.
Sherry vinegar is derived from sherry, which has a strong dessert-wine flavor. Fine Spanish sherry vinegars (look for the name Jerez, the center of sherry production) are aged in oak barrels—sometimes for many decades—resulting in a dark, potent liquid that has a nutty, almost floral quality. Only a splash is needed to add a complex taste to salads, soups, blue cheeses, or sauces; it also makes a good marinade for meats.
One of the mildest vinegars, this is clear, light, crisp, and well suited for pairing with strawberries, dressing delicate salad greens, and making a mignonette sauce for oysters.
Often used in Japanese and Chinese cuisine, rice vinegar (aka rice wine vinegar) is made from fermented rice. Light in color, it’s much sweeter, milder, and less acidic than other vinegars and pairs well with Asian dishes, like noodles with ginger.
Distilled White Vinegar
Fermented from pure distilled alcohol, this vinegar has a harsh, purely acidic taste with no hints of other taming flavors. Best for pickling or baking, it can also be used as an astringent to clean windows or remove odors from wooden cooking utensils or coffee pots. It keeps almost indefinitely at room temperature.
How to Store Vinegar
Unopened, vinegar will keep for up to 2 years when kept in a cool, dark place. Once opened, it will last for at least 6 months.
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