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A FRESH Point of View: All About Vinegars

Vinegar has come a long way in American cooking. Your mother or grandmother probably just kept plain white vinegar and red wine vinegar in her pantry, but today’s cooks have many kinds to choose from – from complex, fruity aged balsamic vinegar to light, rice wine vinegar essential to Asian cuisines.

Vinegar is a great way to add flavor – but few calories and no fat – to your food. But the vinegar aisle can be overwhelming at FRESH – we have more than 20 kinds of balsamic vinegar alone! Here’s what to pick when:

Balsamic: This is the richest, most flavorful, most nuanced kind of vinegar, with a balance of sweet and sour notes, and prized in Italy for centuries. Balsamic is made from grape pressings, then aged, so it usually has an underlying sweetness, even if it’s quite strong and sour.  Use it in your vinaigrettes; mix with olive oil for a dip for crusty bread; drizzle a bit over goat cheese and strawberries, or over tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella;  or over risotto, pasta, or meat.

The longer a balsamic vinegar is aged, the thicker and more complex it will taste – and the more expensive it will be. A way to get that thicker texture from a less costly balsamic is to create a balsamic reduction, by simmering any balsamic with a bit of sugar. (You can also purchase pre-made balsamic reductions; I like Rachael Ray’s version.) Balsamic reductions are especially good drizzled over hearty vegetables like winter squash, or over grilled meat or fish.

Finally, to gild the lily, balsamic vinegars are sometimes flavored. Texas Olive Ranch, for instance, makes one called Figilicious, infused with figs. Racconto has one that is infused with roasted garlic.

Red wine: Tangy and sour, without the underlying sweetness of balsamic, red wine vinegar is commonly used in vinaigrettes or in sauces; it’s a staple in French cooking. You can use it in many of the same ways you’d use balsamic – deglazing a pan to make a sauce, for instance. Use it a splash to brighten up a dish and add a touch of acid, much as you’d use lemon juice.

White wine: Usually just a little bit sweeter and milder than red wine vinegar, but used in much the same way. Do not confuse white wine vinegar with distilled white vinegar, which is much harsher and is really more suitable for use as a household cleanser.

Rice: Mild, sweet and not very aggressive, rice vinegar is essential in Japanese cuisine; it’s what gives sushi rice its distinctive flavor. But it’s also commonly used in other Asian cuisines. In Thai cooking, it is used to dress dishes like Thai beef salad or green papaya salad. In Vietnamese cuisine, it is often mixed with a little salty fish sauce, sugar and herbs to create a light dressing for noodles or a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

Apple cider: One of the milder vinegars. Mixed with a bit of olive oil, this makes a good every-day salad dressing, especially when you don’t want the stronger flavor of a balsamic-based  or red-wine-vinegar dressing.

Malt vinegar: Made from malted barley, malt vinegar is dark in color and has a strong flavor that will remind you of malt or possibly a combination of citrusy and beer. It’s the traditional accompaniment for fish and chips in the United Kingdom; try it next time you fry up a batch of fish!