This is a guest post by Gretchen Witowich, MS RD.
Fooducate has already elucidated the versatility of vinegar, so there’s no question that if it isn’t a staple in your pantry it should be. However, distilled white vinegar is just one of many types, from many cultures.
On a basic level, vinegar is acetic acid produced by the fermentation of an alcoholic liquid (a sugary liquid that has already been fermented to create ethanol) by acetic acid bacteria. Almost every region in the world (India, Philippines, China, Italy, Austria, France, etc) has fermented some ingredient (coconut, rice, dates, persimmon, honey, etc) to create a vinegar.
While your budget and purpose will help determine which type you use, here are a few more reasons why it’s a great product to have on hand:
* Cost – this can surely range, but your basic distilled white vinegar- perhaps the most versatile of all – is just pennies per ounce. It may be used it for purposes beyond eating.
* Stability – vinegar doesn’t go bad, and doesn’t take up refrigerator space. Due to its acidity, nothing much can grow in or around vinegar. After time a film may develop, referred to as the “mother,” more common in unpasteurized varieties, which is nothing more than cellulose produced by the pre-exisiting acetic acid bacteria fermenting any sugar or alcohol that wasn’t previously fully fermented. This is completely harmless, and even desirable in some types, typically apple cider or those that are aged.
* Nutrition – virtually calorie free. Those with added sugar (malt, balsamic) may have a handful (less than 20 per serving), but still hardly anything worth counting, which means sugar and fat are also virtually nonexistent. As a non-animal product, it can’t have any cholesterol. Only vinegars with added salt (ie seasoned rice vinegar) have any sodium. It’s one of those rare items in the nutrition world that we can refer to as a “freebie.”
CAUTION! – there is extremely limited data in human subjects to show that vinegar will significantly lower blood sugar, burn fat, speed weight loss, lower cholesterol or any other claim that seems too good to be true. This is not to say that there is no benefit to vinegar, but it is not a magic pill.
Now for a guided vinegar tour. This includes the more common varieties and is certainly not exhaustive.
1) Distilled white vinegar – ethanol, usually from corn or malt, is fermented to produce the vinegar. This type is most likely the cheapest and most widely available; probably one of the few that is more commonly employed for uses other than eating (disinfectant, pesticide, laundry agent, drain cleaner, Easter egg dye medium).
2) Balsamic vinegar - traditionally from specific regions of Italy; the highest quality must follow specifications from the region of Modena, Italy- the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. This type is a slight variation from the standard definition as the grapes fermented to create the acid have not already been fermented (ie wine). It is commonly aged, and the aging vessels lend extra character and depth, for which you may pay extra. Culinary use includes sweet (balsamic glazed strawberries, panna cotta, balsamic reductions for desserts) and savory (glazed Salmon, Caprese salad). The older the vinegar, and thus more nuanced, the more likely it can stand alone, and is usually added after cooking, as opposed to a marinade or sauce.
3) Red/white wine vinegar – this is result of the more traditional vinegar making process, utilizing wine for the bacteria to ferment. White wine may be seen in more delicate utility, especially since its color will not alter the visual display of the meal (think white wine butter sauce or a herby vinaigrette). Red wine vinegar may pack more of a punch, and will have an obvious visual contribution, so is more commonly seen in heartier preparations (think marinara sauce, barbecue sauce, and marinades for red meat).
4) Apple cider vinegar – most widely hailed for its nutritive properties, both with consumption and topical use. It is commonly unpasteurized and often not heated to preserve the enzymatic activity and other potential health benefits. In this case, the bacteria ferment, you guessed it, apple cider. This type often has higher acidity levels, comparatively, and is diluted and/or sweetened for ingestion. While dietary uses include those similar to white vinegar (salad dressings, marinades, seasoning steamed vegetables), it is equally, if not more commonly, used for health/medicinal remedies (hiccups, acne, indigestion, halitosis, etc).
5) Malt vinegar – fermented from malted barley. It is most commonly and popularly known for its consumption as an accompaniment to fish and chips, and is thus associated with England, but a quick search will reveal a host of other tasty recipes, including salt and vinegar potatoes, glazed chicken, and pickles.
6) Rice vinegar – rice wine is fermented to make this vinegar. Available in white, red or black(!), and also available “seasoned” or “un-seasoned”. It may be most commonly consumed with sushi rice, but each variety has its own indications. White lends itself to pickling vegetables and sweet and sour dishes. Red is a little bit sweet, and thus makes an excellent dipping sauce. Black has a smoky note, and may also work well as a dipping sauce, or for braised dishes.
With something for everybody, how will you incorporate vinegar today?
Gretchen Witowich, MS RD, is a registered dietitian working with patients with chronic disease in the Chicagoland area. She enjoys the wide range of ethnic cuisine Chicago has to offer, as well as helping clients, friends and family to incorporate wholesome, sustainable and plant based foods into their everyday life.