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Beyond Sour Grapes

April 23, 2008

10 Min Read
Beyond Sour Grapes

Vinegar was discovered by accident. It's easy to see how it could have happened—leave some wine uncorked for a while and under the right circumstances it will turn from sweet wine into sour vinegar. In fact, the word for vinegar is derived from the French words vin aigre, literally meaning "sour wine."

Its versatility makes vinegar an important ingredient. Although most couldn't live without it on salads, it's also an essential ingredient in an array of other dishes. Vinegar also has a long history of medicinal use and as a common household cleaner.

Vinegar comes in many varieties, including red wine, apple cider, champagne, ume plum and rice. It's also available in a range of flavors, including cinnamon and tarragon. According to the Vinegar Institute, there are an average of 29 vinegar products on a grocery store's shelves at any one time. If your customers are to make an informed choice, help them distinguish between vinegar varieties, understand the judicious use of vinegar in cuisine, and even learn how to use vinegar to freshen the air.

Venerable Vinegar
One of the earliest known references to vinegar in the West was in the fifth century B.C. in texts attributed to Hippocrates, who is credited for first noting it for medicinal use. He was said to employ vinegar (mixed with honey) to cure various ills, including coughs and ulcers. But vinegar production most likely dates much earlier than Hippocrates' first mention. According to the Vinegar Institute, "purposefully spoiled" wine is at least 10,000 years old.

The difficulty in dating vinegar's first production and use is due in part to how simple it is to make. Vinegar can be made from almost any food with a high fermentable sugar content, including such diverse items as molasses, sorghum, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains and whey. Leave a liquified version of these foods sitting around in the open air and it's likely to turn to vinegar, first fermenting into alcohol (when starting with wine or beer, this first step is already done), and then into vinegar.

Acetobacter (Acetobacter spp.), an airborne bacteria, is the agent that in conjunction with oxygen turns a liquid to a vinegar. Thus, when wine isn't corked properly, airborne acetobacter and oxygen get in and create acetic acid (a chemical compound) in the alcohol. Acetic acid is what converts the alcohol into vinegar. However, not all acetic acid is tasty, so the art of vinegar-making is knowing how to cultivate the best tasting bacteria.

Many people are turned off when they see "gunk" in the bottom of their vinegar bottles. This is actually a natural by-product known as "mother." Mother is a slightly gelatinous mix of bacteria and enzymes produced by the acetic acid. It is completely harmless, but can be strained out.

An unappetizing footnote to the ancient culinary art of vinegar-making: In the past, as vinegar was made in open-air barrels, minute creatures, such as Anguillula aceti (a tiny, transparent nematode, known popularly as a vinegar eel, though it is not an eel) would creep in. Flies, mites and lice also feed off the bacteria in wine, and all of these, including the Anguillula aceti, were considered important flavor enhancers critical to the vinegar process. Of course, in today's more hygienic times, these small helpers no longer play a role.

Cooking With Vinegar
Vinegar is best known for its part in salad dressings and marinades. But it also can be used in sauces, and is traditionally used to flavor sushi rice, soups, salsas, dips and spreads. It even figures as the dominant ingredient in vinegar pie, a favorite Southern dessert.

In general, vinegar serves as a flavor enhancer in cooking. As an essential element of the cook's creative palette, vinegar imparts sourness and also the particular vinegar variety's flavor. The acidic quality it brings to other ingredients in a dish is also important in many recipes. For some bitter flavors, vinegar's acidity has a neutralizing effect; for other flavors, such as sweets, it is complementary.

A higher-quality vinegar offers the right balance of three essential qualities: sourness, flavor and acidity. With quality vinegar, only a small amount is necessary. On the other hand, a lower-grade vinegar tends to dominate rather than balance the ingredients. Many cooks make the too-much-of-a-good-thing mistake with vinegar, but too much vinegar puckers the mouth rather than gently enhancing the other flavors.

Vinegar varieties can inspire creativity in a wise cook. They also can be hazardous in the wrong hands—like a fellow in a plaid suit, they can stand out for all the wrong reasons if improperly used.

Vinegars are usually not interchangeable. Each is so distinctively flavored; for example, balsamic vinegar and sweet rice wine vinegar are like day and night. Flavored vinegars exert a strong presence that can totally alter a dish. When cooking with these, they must balance well against the other ingredients in the dish. A drop or two of cinnamon vinegar could be delicious in a shrimp curry, but disastrous in cucumber dill pickles. When cooking with flavored vinegar varieties, less is always more.

Vinegar is also prized for its tenderizing and preservative qualities. Vinegar's acidity breaks down proteins, thus making it a valuable tenderizer in marinades. In ancient times, it was used with tough cuts of meat to tenderize and preserve them for longevity without refrigeration. Vinegar remains a critical ingredient in many marinades today.

Even Good For The Kitchen Sink
Vinegar also can be used as a common household cleaner. The Vinegar Institute lists many uses for vinegar around the house, including stain removal and stainless steel polish. Boiling vinegar removes unpleasant odors—a nice raspberry vinegar would be a great choice for freshening the air. Vinegar also makes a great antiseptic in a pinch.

Customers who are interested in learning more about vinegar may be in for an earful. After you explain to them such lore as the early medicinal uses of vinegar, all of the foods vinegar can enhance and how vinegar can even be used for many household cleaning chores, they'll never look at the vinegar shelf the same way again.

Lynn Ginsburg and Mary Taylor write for a number of national magazines and newspapers, and are the authors of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin's Press, 2002). For more information, visit

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 78-9

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 78

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 79

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