Vinegar and Citrus Primer
How to use these pantry basics to punch up flavors
Vinegars and citrus juices are flavor-boosting powerhouses, good for brightening up everything from dressings and condiments to marinades and sauces, cocktails, and quick pickles.
If all you want is the bare minimum, these three things will cover most of your acidic needs:
» Balsamic vinegar for salads and fancified drizzling.
» Lemons for cocktails.
» White wine vinegar for everything else.
For more vinegar mysteries solved, check out:
» Why is authentic balsamic so expensive?
» What’s that weird cloudy mass floating in the vinegar? (It’s a mother.)
» A lot of Chowhound discussion about homemade vinegar.
Vinegar can be made from virtually anything containing sugar. The base ingredient is first fermented to convert the sugars to alcohol. Then a secondary fermentation converts the alcohol to acetic acid via a group of aptly named bacteria called acetobacter to create vinegar (the term vinegar actually comes from the French words vin aigre, or sour wine).
We’ve put together a guide on how to use some of the most common acids. They are loosely organized from the strongest sour flavor to the least using a low-tech litmus test to measure pH levels, which is “a reasonable predictor of ‘sour’ taste and overall flavor contribution to the food,” says Barry Swanson, regents professor and interim chair of the School of Food Science at Washington State University. Just for good measure we cross-referenced this with data from the FDA, the Vinegar Institute, and day-to-day experience. And no, we’re not going to get super technical and discuss the finer details of, say, replacing monovalent acetic acid with trivalent citric acid; this is for practical use in the kitchen, not doing tests in a lab.
DISTILLED WHITE VINEGAR
You Should Know: It has a really harsh taste (because it’s made from grain alcohol), so this vinegar is associated more with cleaning than cooking. But in the kitchen it lends brightness when added to recipes just before serving.
You Should Know: When it comes to citrus juices, the acidity varies based on the type, ripeness, and quality of the fruit. However, limes are generally the most acidic of the popular citrus varieties. Lime juice is most commonly used in cocktails and stars in Latin and Asian cooking.
Try It: Squeezed over grilled fish or chicken just before serving, mixed into cocktails (the margarita being the most famous), added to your next fruit salad with some honey for a quick dessert, tossed with top-quality raw fish and a few herbs for a simple ceviche, or combined with veggies for chips and salsa.
You Should Know: The tart, distinctive flavor of lemon juice makes it a great ingredient for almost any application. Freshly squeezed lemon juice is usually preferable to bottled since it’s more flavorful, but turn to the bottle when you’re doing things where precise pH levels are necessary to a recipe’s success, like when canning.
Try It: As well as being very common in cocktails and summer desserts like fruit pie, lemon juice is often used to prevent browning (keep an eye out for the phrase acidulated water). It also adds bright flavor to dishes like Pasta with Arugula Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts.
WHITE WINE VINEGAR
You Should Know: This is the most versatile vinegar. It has a nice level of acidity, its flavor is distinct without being overwhelming, and it’s white so you don’t have to worry about it turning foods (like a delicate white sauce) an unappetizing color.
Try It: You can use white wine vinegar in dressings, marinades, and sauces, or to give flavor to braised beans.
RED WINE VINEGAR
You Should Know: Used in everything from soups to salads to dressings to roasts. The French—who are the world’s largest producers—use it in nearly every classic recipe. Don’t use it in places where the color will ruin the look of the finished dish.
Try It: Go classic French with Oysters with Mignonette Granité.
You Should Know: One of the less common vinegars on the market (but a standard ingredient in many Spanish dishes), sherry vinegar tastes a little like a light version of balsamic and has a more distinct flavor than other wine vinegars. As with red wine vinegar, don’t use sherry vinegar in places where the color will ruin the look of the finished dish.
Try It: To liven up salad dressings, add a level of complexity to caramelized onions, finish off a sauce, or add brightness to hot or cold soups, like this Cucumber and Green Grape Gazpacho.
You Should Know: Possibly the most marketed of all the vinegars, this Italian specialty vinegar with a deep brown color became trendy in the 1990s when Americans discovered rustic Italian food. There are many low-quality imposters on the market that are made by adding caramel color to regular wine vinegar, but the real thing is aged for upward of 12 years—thus warranting its cost.
Try It: Use the costly stuff for drizzling on salads, grilled foods, or the now ubiquitous strawberries and ice cream. The cheaper stuff is great for deglazing—such as in this eggs recipe—or for reducing and making a big batch of warm dressing, like the one in this BLT Salad.
You Should Know: Used widely in North American recipes, cider vinegar is made from apples. It has a full-bodied flavor that’s great in both sweet and savory applications, and it is the most commonly used vinegar when it comes to pickling.
Try It: This vinegar is great when you want to add balance to a dish without adding a ton of extra flavor. Try it in dressings for delicate greens (such as butter lettuce), to finish off a cream sauce, or in this Crisp Pancetta and Egg Salad Sandwich.
You Should Know: Most often used in Asian dishes, the rice vinegar in the United States is pale yellow or clear in color, but you might find the red and black versions in Asian specialty markets. Rice vinegar that is labeled “seasoned” has sugar and salt added to it, so you’ll want to go light on those ingredients when using this variety.
Try It: It’s commonly used in Asian sauces and dressings to add flavor and mild acidity, and is usually mixed in with sushi rice. We use it in these Breakfast Rice Cakes with Chinese Sausage. But it’s not just for Asian recipes: Try it in salad dressings or marinades where you want to add a touch of sweetness and a bit of tang.
You Should Know: Made from barley malt, this vinegar is relatively mild and most commonly used as a condiment in British foods (fish and chips aren’t the same without it).
Try It: Its distinctive malt flavor is fun to experiment with and works well with heartier dishes. Use it in this Cured Salmon with Dill and Mustard Sauce recipe, in salad dressings, or just go classic by keeping it on hand to dash on fries.