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Add a Splash of Flavor with Vinegar

Although I’ve never tested its validity, I’m guessing that the old adage “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is true. However, if I had to choose one of the two to have in my kitchen, vinegar would win hands down. A staple for flavoring and preserving foods for over 6000 years, vinegar is as essential as spices and herbs — even salt and pepper — in bringing life to a dish.

Vinegar is named for the soured fermentation, which it is made from, vin aigre, literally “soured wine” in French. Harmless bacteria in wine, beer or cider metabolize the alcohol sugars in these liquids, which produces the acetic acid that gives vinegar its distinctive sour taste. It is this sour note that is prized in the kitchen for bringing the finishing touch to foods, balancing flavors, adding complexity and opening up the palate to an array of tastes.

While all vinegars have a welcomed sour flavor, there is as much variation among vinegars as there are alcohol liquids to make the vinegars from. My pantry’s shelves are continually stocked with several of my favorite vinegars, each one bringing a distinct flavor and aroma to any particular dish. Many vinegars come from wine and retain the multifaceted aromas and characteristics of that beloved beverage.

I use tart, full-bodied red wine vinegar with the earthy flavors of whole grains and beans, such as in Salmon Watercress and Barley Salad and Health Starts Here Texas Caviar. (It’s also perfect in my grandmother’s recipe for the southern classic Red Beans and Rice.) Sherry vinegar, made from sherry wine, adds a touch of sweetness and high notes when it brings acid to a dish. I like it best with greens as in Butternut Squash and Kale Salad and in Chard with Sherry Vinegar and Walnuts.

One of the most prized vinegars, Balsamic vinegar, is also made from wine. Traditionally aged in wood barrels for anywhere from 3 to 100 years, Balsamic vinegars are much darker, more syrupy and have more complex flavors than most other vinegars – making them quite sought after. With such depth of flavor, its uses are many, adding dimension to desserts, dressings, grains, greens, salads, vegetables, meats and cheese, and even fruit.

You can dress a green salad simply with straight balsamic vinegar, or you can whip up a batch of No-Oil Balsamic Dressing. Add Balsamic to greens and salads in Celery Citrus Salad with Balsamic and Feta and in Cherry Arugula Salad with Almonds and Tarragon; or pair with earthy roasted mushrooms and quinoa, in Quinoa with Balsamic Roasted Mushrooms.

Apple cider vinegar is a common favorite. Made from hard (fermented) cider, it still retains some of the sweet, fruity characteristic of apples. This makes it a perfect complement to any dishes where apples work well, such as warm or cold salads, grain dishes and slaws. I really like to use it with slightly pungent cruciferous vegetables such as in Broccoli Salad with Walnuts and Currants, Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Shallots, or Cabbage Slaw with Gala Apples and Walnuts. Or try these dishes to see how much apple cider vinegar can lend to a dish: Curried Apple Chutney, White Bean and Spinach Salad, Chestnut and Wheatberry Salad.

Food with an Asian flair also benefits greatly from a little acid. In my kitchen, the mildest of vinegars, rice vinegar, is probably also the most used. I use it in dressings, stir-fries, noodles and salads. If you are looking for some ways to use it, try these recipes: warming Miso Ginger Wild Rice with Carrots and Cabbage, creamy and comforting Sesame Peanut Noodles, light and refreshing Thai Shrimp and Carrot Salad, savory Pork Stir Fry with Asparagus, Peppers, and Green Onions, or the versatile Orange Peanut Dressing.

Another favorite vinegar that works wonderfully in Asian dishes as well as other cuisines is Ume Vinegar, also called Umeboshi Vinegar. This salty vinegar is made from fermented umeboshi plums and is my daughter’s favorite addition to cooked greens. A different way to use it is with beans, as in Black Bean Hummus.

How do you like to like to use vinegar in your kitchen?