Vinegar 101

by in Healthy Tips, August 11, 2011

Vinegar made our list of top 10 healthy flavor boosters. With so many varieties available, choosing the right vinegar to compliment your dish can get confusing. These vinegar basics will get your taste buds on track.

Vinegar Fundamentals
The word vinegar originates from the French word vin aigre, which translates into “sour wine.” Vinegars are made by introducing bacteria into a fermented liquid like wine, beer or cider and converting it into acetic acid (that’s the sour flavor you taste in vinegar). As for nutrients, most varieties of vinegar contain about 3 calories and not much else.

Vinegar has been used for thousands of years as a cooking ingredient, condiment and preservative (like for pickles!). The acidity in vinegar makes it a great addition to marinades—the acidity helps break down the protein fiber and softens the meat. Vinegar can also be used to balance out the flavor of dishes and cut down bitterness.

Common Varieties
Here’s the lowdown on the most common varieties and where to use them:

Balsamic Vinegar
This dark red, sweet vinegar has been produced in Italy for over 800 years. It’s typically made from red or white wine from Trebbiano grapes. The wine is aged in wooden barrels for up to 50 years. The longer this vinegar ages, the sweeter and thicker (and pricier) it gets. Many balsamic vinegars are made with the addition of sulfites, which some asthmatics may be allergic to.

Best for: dishes with strawberries or tomatoes, salad dressings, sauces, soups, marinades, grilled meats, and poached fruit.

Cider vinegar
Also known as apple cider vinegar, this vinegar has a rich and fruity flavor and is pale brown in color. It’s made from fermented apple cider, unpasteurized apple juice, or pulp and isn’t very pricey.

Best for: Chutneys, hearty stews, marinades, sweet pickles, and coleslaw dressing.

White Vinegar
Also known as distilled vinegar or distilled white vinegar, this colorless vinegar is made from grain alcohol. It has a very high acidity and overpowering sour flavor. This inexpensive vinegar is also useful for household chores like washing windows and cleaning coffee pots.

Best for: Preserving and pickling.

Rice Vinegar

This vinegar is made from fermented rice and is commonly referred to as rice wine vinegar. It has a mild, sweet flavor and is much less acidic than other vinegars.

Best for: Salad dressing, seafood marinades, and Japanese and Chinese cuisine like sushi and pickled ginger and seafood.

Red Wine Vinegar
This vinegar is made from red wine and is typically aged in wooden barrels. Its strong flavor makes it a perfect choice for hearty dishes. Both red and white wine vinegars are typically used in French and Mediterranean cuisines and are much less acidic than cider or distilled vinegar.

Best for: Stews, sauces, marinades and salad dressings

White Wine Vinegar

Depending on the wine it was derived from, the flavor of this versatile vinegar can range from mild to very tangy. Champagne vinegar (made from the bubbly beverage) is pale in color with a mild and delicate flavor.

Best for: Vinaigrette, vegetable dishes, soups and stews and pickled veggies.

Purchasing and Storage Tips: Choose vinegar that’s clear in color, not cloudy or muddy. Store unopened in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 years. Once opened, vinegar can last for up to 3 months.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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