February 19, 2014 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I've seen lots of mentions on the blue, green and elsewhere saying how great vinegar is in cooking, how some people have 40 different kinds for all different reasons. Thing is, I've never really used it except as directed by a recipe, so I've never developed a good sense for how it interacts with other food -- I have no instinct for it. Can the hive mind point me at resources or otherwise fill me in on the role vinegar(s) can play in food?
posted by Decimask to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Vinegar, like lemon juice and other acidic ingredients, adds a sort of "sharp/clean/bright" flavor to foods. There's a couple of experiments you can do to taste "what does vinegar add to food flavorwise":

1. Strawberries. Taste them plain, and then taste them with a little balsamic vinegar added to them.

2. French Fries. Taste them plain, and then taste them with a little malt vinegar drizzled over them. (Malt vinegar may be tough to find in the US, so you can use a good red wine vinegar in a pinch.)

Another way to taste the difference with acidic flavors in general is to try making some kind of simple berry sauce; just stew down some raspberries or blueberries with a little sugar and water, until the fruit is soft. Taste it. Then drizzle in a little lemon juice (not much, just a couple tablespoons if you used a whole pint of berries) and taste it again.

I notice the difference more with fruit sauces with-or-without lemon juice more so than I notice things with-or-without vinegar, but it's that acidic undertone people are talking about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on February 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

anything that can be lifted by a little acidity. I used sherry vinegar on most roast veg just before I put them on the table. Also use vinegar in with sweet syrups to make them a bit more savory for topping things - like maple syrup and sherry vinegar is great on lots of things.

Balsamic can fill a similar role to sherry vinegar

But you don't want a lot - just a few sprinkles - especially on something that can be same-y and cloying.
posted by JPD at 8:59 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Vinegar is an acid. This means that it'll taste acidic, and also that it works chemically as an acid in food. So, for instance, you can use it to curdle cheese. It also can be emulsified with oil to create a salad dressing (and all sorts of other delicious sauce type things).

You might want to look at Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking for a general sense of how vinegar will behave in different contexts.

It's also great for poaching eggs, to keep the whites together when you crack them into the pot of water.
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cider vinegar is really cheap, and really delicious. If it was expensive, it would be considered a gourmet item. Put several vinegars in small dishes, dip some spinach for a tasting. Made beef stew last night and the recipe called for vinegar; it lifted the taste subtly.
posted by theora55 at 9:21 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

actually the vinegar and poaching eggs thing is an old wives tale. But I sort of like the taste it adds so I still use it.
posted by JPD at 9:28 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chinese black vinegar is used in hot & sour soup, which isn't difficult to make. If you can't find it balsamic makes a decent substitute. Delicious!
posted by Room 641-A at 9:30 AM on February 19, 2014

actually the vinegar and poaching eggs thing is an old wives tale.

Works every time for me.
posted by Sara C. at 9:31 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I usually have several different types of vinegar in my pantry (minimum would be balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, and plain white vinegar). I use vinegar almost exclusively to add a finishing touch to a dish, or as an ingredient in a dipping sauce or salad dressing. So for me vinegar is something that gets used at the conclusion of cooking, or as something separate from the main cooking process.

Balsamic vinegar I mostly use for salad dressing, and sometimes as a finishing touch drizzled over cooked vegetables. Rice vinegar I usually mix with soy sauce for a dipping sauce for dumplings or Korean savory pancakes. I might add sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, and maybe some chopped green onions to the rice vinegar and soy sauce for a more elaborate dipping sauce. Plain white vinegar gets used for making hot sauce using hot peppers I grew myself, or quick pickles - basically when I'll be using large quantities of vinegar, and I don't want any additional flavor elements coming from the vinegar.

Sometimes I'll have cider vinegar on hand, but I don't find myself using it much.
posted by needled at 9:45 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought "man, it's weird that people have so many vinegars". Then I went into the kitchen to make lunch, and realised that I have a bunch--balsamic, white balsamic, cider, raspberry white wine, white wine, red wine, white, malt, rice, and sherry. Which tells me that I possibly have a vinegar problem, but whatever.

I find myself using vinegar and lemon juice almost without thinking about it--if I taste soup or sauce and think "huh, this needs something", I'll add a shot of vinegar to see if it helps. It almost always does--the note of salty-sour that it adds to things is hard to pin down, but adds a lot of nuance to the flavor.

I use different vinegars for different things--all of them (except white) occasionally get used for salad dressings and dipping sauces. I more or less match vinegar flavors the way that I match wine to things--beef get a darker vinegar, like red wine or balsamic, while chicken gets lighter ones, and pork gets fruity ones. Usually vinegar gets used, in my kitchen, in marinades, sauces, soups, casseroles, and dressings.

If you start playing around with it, you'll get a sense of what you like quite quickly, I'd think.
posted by MeghanC at 10:00 AM on February 19, 2014

needled uses vinegar pretty much how I do.

I have a pork chop recipe where red wine vinegar is used in the sauce. You pan cook pork chops, remove then from the pan and then add some chopped onion to the pan and cook till wilted, add some brown sugar and a bit of red wine vinegar to deglaze the good bits in the pan from the chops, and then quickly add cubed fresh tomato and some chicken broth and cook that down and use that as a sauce on the chops.

I will use balsamic or pomegranate vinegar on green salads, though I usually cut it with some tarragon vinegar or cider vinegar. I have some chocolate balsamic that works with fruit or ice cream or cheese.

This recipe is pretty much how my mother-in-law made cole slaw, and about the main thing I use cider vinegar for.
posted by gudrun at 10:05 AM on February 19, 2014

An additional point: as an acid, vinegar can also help soften/degrade some of the tougher proteins during cooking. Helps tenderize tougher cuts of meat and the like.
posted by k5.user at 10:28 AM on February 19, 2014

another multiple vinegar owner here. I use vinegars almost every day - rice vinegar or sherry vinegar for asian foods, cider vinegar for a lot of pork and poultry dishes, balsamic vinegar for almost everything etc.
Very often, if a recipe calls for wine, you can use a tablespoon of vinegar and a cup of water instead. Actually, this was what got me started: my gran's kosher (sabbath) veal shoulder. Rub well with salt, pepper and ginger. Brown in oil on all sides, place in a pan with an onion, a leek, a carrot and a piece of celeriac root. Add a spoonful of vinegar and a cup of water and braise for 90 mins. Be happy.
posted by mumimor at 11:34 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

To my tastebuds, vinegar brightens the flavor of things. You may also use lemon juice for a milder but similar effect. Citric acid is often added to beverages for this reason. In fact, I once spoke to a vintner who lamented that many winemakers now add citric acid to the wine to sharpen the flavor because peoples' palettes have been "spoiled" by highly acidic sodas. But in a way, that demonstrates the point — people generally find acidic flavors tasty.

In my kitchen I use cider vinegar the most; it's cheap, versatile, and goes well with many things. Rice vinegar is more neutral and subtle and also useful in many things. Balsamic is very sweet and palatable to most on its own on salads, bread, or roasted vegetables.

Vinegar + mayonnaise + chipotle/garlic/pesto/etc = delicious aioli!
Vinegar + ketchup + brown sugar = delicious glaze for beef or pork!
Vinegar + soy sauce + brown sugar = delicious glaze for fish!
Vinegar + sugar + rice = delicious sushi rice!

Vinegar + dairy makes it taste more sour (like sour cream sour). Sometimes I cut greek yogurt with a tiny mild of mild vinegar, then add some vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon — tastes just like cheesecake!
posted by annekate at 12:18 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with annekate about the brightening; it also makes the flavor profile of a dish more complex.

For example, yesterday I made a stew with white beans, ground beef, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, and beef stock (plus salt, pepper, spices, etc.). I felt like it needed a flavor that was a little more "rounded" so I poured in a little cider vinegar. It really makes a difference!
posted by miss tea at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2014

Suprised no one has mentioned drizzling your roast vegetables with vinegar - the acid evaporates and you're left with a lovely sweetness.

Also, when using balsamic in a dressing or neat (which is chronically overused imho as it's so strong), consider thinning it out with a little red wine vinegar as good stuff (which is much, much better than cheap balsamic) is both expensive and very potent.
posted by smoke at 1:08 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use it in certain cocktails and carbonated beverages. It can suck, or it can make a reasonable but not exciting drink fricking amazing, so you have to be careful and balance it right for the specific drink you're making. that's worth experimenting with, IMHO. Mind you, I'm one of those people that has six different types of homemade bitters in my cabinet right now, along with several pounds of weird assorted barks, roots, and dried flowers.

Also, "quick-pickled" red grapes are ridiculously good with strong cheeses, and then you have some wacky-flavored vinegar-based fluid when you're done, which subsequently goes really well in certain roasts and the like.
posted by aramaic at 2:29 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mother's side is from Xi'an. Vinegar is a thing.

As a dip, like any other acid (ketchup, lemon...) it cuts grease and adds life. Red wine is recommended with a steak; dumplings / buns / any combination of starch and meat, including noodles demand black vinegar (no soy sauce, but that's my personal regional preference).

I am less confident about this, but I think the acidity cuts fishiness: I've always put it in tuna salad, and it also goes into a family recipe we have for eel.
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:52 PM on February 19, 2014

Vinegar is great. I mostly use it for making homemade salad dressings and my favourite for that is cider vinegar. Red wine vinegar is my second favourite and it's also amazing on black bean stew, caldo gallego and really just about any stew. I usually splash a teaspoon or so on a bowl of soup or stew just before eating.

Helps tenderize tougher cuts of meat and the like.

I had always thought that vinegar helped tenderise meat as well and was surprised to hear from America's Test Kitchen that they recommend not adding acid to marinades as it does not tenderise the cut but rather makes the very outer bit mushy. They recommend adding any acidic sauces afterwards or at the very end of the cooking process.
posted by mosessis at 12:19 AM on February 20, 2014

(not trying to derail) I cook the meats in acid (eg cider vinegar in the crockpot for briskets and roasts) or if I'm poaching fish (though that's usually lemon juice, not vinegar), or doing slopy joe/bbq in a pan -- didn't mean to imply marinade the meat before cooking.
posted by k5.user at 6:32 AM on February 20, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all. Great answers!
posted by Decimask at 3:37 PM on March 11, 2014

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