Make food pop with a splash of vinegar

Various vinegars at are on display at a farmers market.
(Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Various vinegars at are on display at a farmers market. (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

A splash of vinegar brightens up salads, sauces, even fruit desserts. It is a key ingredient in vinaigrettes. In addition to salad dressings and marinades, pickles, chutneys, salsas and tomato bruschetta all benefit from its tartness. Condiments like mayonnaise, mustards, ketchup and barbecue sauce all contain vinegar.

That’s because acid excites the palate, making food pop, balancing salty and sweet flavors. It cuts through the fat in rich sauces like mayonnaise, hollandaise and salad dressings. In addition to vinegars, citrus, tart fruits like cranberries, tomatoes, pickles and wine add acidity when preparing meals.

Natural vinegar is an aged and filtered product made from anything that contains sugar. The English word comes from the French for sour wine (“vin” for wine and “aigre” for sour) which in turn derives from the Latin (“vinum” for wine and “acer” for sour). Traditionally, it has been made from fruit (grapes or apples), malt (common in England) or rice (in the Orient). The fermentation of vinegar is a two-part process. First, yeasts change natural sugars into alcohol; this creates wine or cider. Then, acetobacter bacteria convert the alcohol into acetic acid with the help of oxygen from the air.

The culture used to make vinegar, called the “vinegar mother,” contains the yeast and bacteria needed to make a new batch of vinegar. Natural, raw vinegar has this “mother” living in it. Like any natural culture, it needs to be kept alive and will stay usable as long as it has enough oxygen and sugar to survive. It causes sediment (cellulose) to precipitate out of the vinegar solution; this is often filtered out to create a clear product. Most commercially sold vinegar is pasteurized before bottling to prevent these bacteria from forming “mother” while sitting on the store shelf.

But natural vinegar is not simply an acetic acid solution. Natural, unprocessed and unpasteurized vinegar (like cider or wine vinegar) contains B vitamins like riboflavin and thiamine, many minerals, and has important health benefits. It aids the immune system, helps digestion, lowers blood pressure and helps break down calcium deposits that can cause joint pain.

The United States Food and Drug Administration requires vinegar to contain at least 4 percent acidity. This is the concentration needed to ensure safety of pickles and other products preserved with vinegar. Cider and wine vinegars are often slightly more acidic with approximately 5 to 6 percent acidity.

Vinegar has been used for cooking, cleaning and preserving for thousands of years, making it is an ancient art and science. It was probably discovered by accident thousands of years ago when wine was exposed to air and turned into sour vinegar. By 5000 B.C., it was already widely used as both a condiment and a preservative in ancient Babylon. Babylonians were also the first to add herbs and spices to flavor it. The Romans used it as a beverage, and Hippocrates praised its health benefits. There are Biblical references to its healing and soothing properties as well.

White distilled vinegar is good for cleaning purposes and can help with bug bites and skin rashes, but it is harsh and unfit for human consumption. It is a dead product, robbed of its nutritional benefits. The intense heat, chemicals and solvents used during distillation to make the vinegar clear also kill the beneficial bacteria, along with the enzymes produced by them and many of the vitamins and minerals. This highly processed vinegar can actually rob your body of minerals when ingested; therefore, it should not be consumed.

Instead, natural and specialty vinegars have become a fixture in gourmet cooking. These include apple cider vinegar, wine vinegars, balsamic, Oriental rice vinegars, malt vinegar, and flavored or fruit vinegars. Traditional balsamic is made from white Trebbiano grapes and aged for a very long time. Wine vinegars will vary in quality, depending on the wine they are made from. For example, raspberry has a sweet-sour fruity flavor. Malt vinegar, made from barley, is the only vinegar containing gluten. Flavored with herbs and spices, specialty vinegars can add subtle aroma and intrigue to foods without adding calories.

The latest vinegary trend is in beverages. A tablespoon of cider vinegar in a glass of iced water is said to be not only a great thirst quencher, but also to have medicinal benefits. Proponents claim it aids digestion, warding off heartburn, and can also cure sore throats. A traditional Persian drink is made with mint-sugar syrup with added vinegar. The refreshing, electrolyte-laden thirst-quencher switchel is made with cider vinegar, molasses, ginger and water. It was the choice beverage of farmers at haying time until the last century. Combining vinegar with flavorings, tequila or vodka and champagne or soda to add bubbles, cocktails laced with vinegar are becoming fashionable.

Mustardy Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon Dijon style mustard

1 – 2 teaspoons balsamic or wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Whisk all ingredients together with a fork or whisk in the bottom of a salad bowl.

I make this dressing directly in the salad bowl, then add about 3 cups fresh greens and toss thoroughly to coat with dressing before adding other salad ingredients.

Teriyaki Meat Marinade

Ingredients:

1/3 cup white wine

1/3 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup vinegar (rice is best; wine is also good)

2 tablespoons maple syrup or honey

Directions:

In a covered jar, blend all ingredients and shake well to combine. Pour over meat and marinade in refrigerator overnight or several hours. This is enough for about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of meat strips. Grill, roast or pan-fry meat strips to desired doneness.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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