Pucker Up – Vinegar You Will Love to Drink
Ever wonder why there are so many choices now for vinegar? What does it all mean? Does it make a difference? And why would I ever want a strawberry vinegar?
Quality vinegar does indeed make a significant difference in all preparations, from simple vinaigrette to complicated sauce preparation – we know because we did the experiments in our test kitchen. In fact, we found that cheap vinegar will negatively effect the taste significantly of our sauces, even if it is a very minor component.
So we wanted to let you in on some of our secrets – actually not much of a secret, since there was an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal about higher end vinegar (Sept 3/4, 2016: click HERE for the original article). You’ll get a quick guide on artisan vinegar, good enough to drink (in fact, some make fun cocktail mixers).
We’ll start with the most iconic – and probably the most confusing – category: balsamic vinegar.
The real stuff comes from only the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and can be VERY expensive – like a few hundred dollars an ounce. The traditional balsamic vinegar is a true artisan product that starts with labor-intensive handling of the sweet white, locally grown, and late-harvested grapes from the region (typically the Lambrusco or Trebbiano varieties). The minimum aging is 12 years – and we’ve seen 100 year balsamic that tastes like fine port. You will find affinato (fine), usually with a red cap (12 year old), vecchio (old), with a silver cap (15-20 years old), and extra vecchio (extra old), with a gold cap, (about 20-25 years old) In Modena there’s just affinato, with a white cap, or extra vecchio, with a gold cap. Make sure it is authentic Italian balsamic.
White balsamic vinegar blends white grape must (the grape pressings) with white wine vinegar and is cooked at a low temperature to avoid any darkening. Some manufacturers age the vinegar in oak barrels, while other use stainless steel. The flavors of the dark and white are similar, although the dark balsamic is slightly sweeter and tends to be a little more syrupy. The white has more of a clean aftertaste, and works better with lighter colored (e.g., cream) sauces.
Are aged balsamic vinegar worth the money? Yes – but not for every day vinaigrettes or cooking – in fact, cooking with aged balsamic is a mortal sin, since you will ruin the exquisite flavors. Use the best balsamic as a drizzle (think caprese salad). While the traditional Italian balsamic vinegar is sweet, viscous, subtle, and exquisite, the inexpensive grocery store brands are sour and sometimes harsh.
There are a few very nice US producers of balsamic vinegar, mostly in California where you can find the grape varietals you need. Our favorite to date is from Sparrow Lane (Ceres, CA). They also make an outstanding white balsamic vinegar.
Vinegar from Specific Grape Varietals
Most of the “red wine” vinegar you see in the grocery store is made in large scale chemical reactors. They add whole or pureed fruit, then use a chemical process that converts the sugar into acetic acid. That’s why it tastes harsh and smells like a chemistry lab. Why not just buy a bottle of grape juice and add your own acetic acid? It would be cheaper, but just as bad. We’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that vinegar is an important component of cooking seriously good food.
One direction is to find producers who use good old-fashioned methods to produce vinegar: fresh press the grapes to get juice, let it ferment, then either let ambient bacteria or added bacteria convert the alcohol into acetic acid. The flavors of the grape come through, and you can get a very balanced product. The products that are allowed to sit for 1 year or more have are the best (of course).
Two products we use on a regular basis are the vinegar products from Cuisine Perel (another California company) and the products from Castell de Gardeny (a Spanish brand, which can be found on iGourmet and Amazon). We particularly like the Late Harvest Riesling Vinegar from Perel, and the Merlot Vinegar from Gardeny. Try the Gardeny Vermouth, Moscatel, and Cava Rose varietals. Also quite good are the products from Katz & Co. (Napa, CA), especially their late-harvest Zinfandel vinegar
While I won’t get near a wine made from berries, stone fruit, etc., the fruit vinegar from artisan producers are quite amazing – and much more versatile than you might think. When we read the Wall Street Journal article, we immediately went out to taste test the Lindera Farms Virginia Berry vinegar (you can find them at Foodlyn.com – and they do indeed make a strawberry vinegar). We made a cocktail (a bit of vodka, some raspberry simple syrup, muddled mint, the Lindera vinegar, crushed ice, and a splash of soda water) – it was a big hit. Then we did a vinaigrette that we served with fresh spinach, fresh raspberries, and feta – again, quite amazing. Finally we did a gastrique that we served on seared halibut – heavenly!
Check out the many varieties offered by Sparrow Lane – we really like their subtle, complex flavors.