Many a dressing, sauce or pickle recipe calls for vinegar, but not all kinds of vinegar are the same. Indeed, the tangy and tart liquid can be fermented from basically any fruit, vegetable, grain or spirit, each with its own unique flavour profile. Vinegar experts quibble endlessly over fermentation processes and ageing times.
These are a few of the most common varieties to get you up to speed on their properties and uses. But be sure to check out your local farmers’ market and vinegar producers and experiment with their subtle and unique flavours and aromas!
The most common, over-the-counter variety is white, or “distilled”, vinegar, which is slowly fermented from distilled alcohol into acetic acid (the scientific name for what we know as “vinegar”). It’s the most neutral variety for cooking, pickling, preserving meats and other culinary uses, and is also employed in household cleaning and science labs.
An Italian vinegar fermented from grape must (i.e. concentrated grape pulp), balsamic is on a somewhat higher strata than regular old white and offers a more refined culinary experience… It has a rich, dark colour and a far more complex flavour pallet than white vinegar, affording notes of smoke, fig, cherry or nuts.
Balsamic vinegar has a robust culture of its own and there are several types, including the prized, decade-aged traditional balsamic. It’s not normally used during cooking (high heat tends to destroy its flavour profile), but rather dripped onto fruit, gelato, steak, fish and other sweet or savoury dishes, and also used as a palate cleanser.
Apple cider vinegar
Another very common vinegar variety, apple cider vinegar is fermented from apples and sugar. It has a lighter tangy, fruity taste that is excellent in salad dressings, as well as for pickling and punching up jams and marmalades.
Apple cider vinegar is also renowned for myriad alleged health benefits. People say a spoonful of apple cider vinegar will help with things from weight loss to blood sugar balance to teeth whitening; they use it homemade shampoos or rub it on their feet to fight fungus. Some of this is backed by science, some may be merely household folklore, but it can’t hurt to try for yourself.
Red wine vinegar
Wine’s tendency to morph into vinegar over time is a classic bane of sommeliers… but a classic boon to vinegar fans! Especially popular in the United States, red wine vinegar has a rich reddish colour and a, well, winey flavour, making it an excellent choice for salad dressing, thicker sauces and meat marinades.
A rich brown variety fermented from high-malt beer and lightly aged, malt vinegar is somewhat more mellow than other kinds of vinegar, making it the condiment of choice for old-fashioned English fish and chips. Malt vinegar is almost always associated with this iconic dish but you can try it with other fried foods, grilled shrimp or chicken, or a tomato-based pasta sauce.
Cane vinegar is fermented from sugar cane juice and is most commonly produced in France, the Philippines and (more recently) in the US state of Louisiana. Despite coming from sugar, it isn’t sweet – it’s milder flavour somewhat resemble malt vinegar, but cane vinegar is often described as “fresher” than the malt variety. Be sure to reach for a bottle of cane vinegar when preparing adobo, a delicious meat curry that is a signature dish of the Philippines.
A dark, mature vinegar hailing from the central plains of China, black vinegar is fermented from rice, sorghum or other grains. It has a powerful flavour resembling traditional balsamic vinegar but is typically less expensive. It should be used sparingly as a condiment to punch up savoury and sweet dishes.