Thursday, April 12, 2012

Flavor Profile: Vinegar

In my younger years, before I knew that I could strip my tooth enamel off by doing this, I used to cut up lemons and bite right into them, sucking all that lemony juice right off the peel, like an orange. While my dentist is grateful I don’t do that any more, I so love adding something acidic to some of my dishes to brighten them up.

Citrus juices are just one of these acids, vinegar is another. And thankfully there are a lot of different kinds of vinegar available to us: white, malt, wine, sherry, apple cider, fruit, balsamic, rice, and flavored, just to name a few.

And each one is delicious in its own unique way. I particularly love this one vinegar made in Germany that I can only get at a German food market. Some of my relatives in the old country use it. It has a soft, low-acid herbal flavor that works so well in salad dressings. I especially like using it to make a salad dressing on greens that also include fresh herbs like dill or chives.  Choosing which vinegar to use is as simple as using the one that most closely resembles an ingredient in the dish so that it complements instead of antagonizes the dish.

Vinegar enhances whatever it is added to. Many recipes will suggest adding a sprinkling of vinegar at the end of the cooking period, before it is served, such as when sautéing swiss chard or spinach. Just a little, though. Enough to brighten the flavor of the main ingredient but not so much that it is noticeable.

There are many uses for vinegar: culinary, medicinal, and for cleaning.  Culinary uses include pickling, making vinaigrettes and other salad dressings. It can be found in many condiments like mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, and is a key ingredient in chutneys and marinades, where it breaks down the fibers of the protein. Ceviche is the use of citrus juice like lemon or lime, on raw fish which “cooks” the meat.

Other than its culinary uses, did you know that vinegar also has medicinal uses? It is soothing for sunburn (it has a cooling effect), may reduce serum cholesterol and blood pressure, helps diabetics control their blood glucose levels by reducing the glycemic index of  carbohydrates, can be helpful in reducing the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, and is antimicrobial (effective against infection).

Vinegar has also been used for centuries to help with cleaning projects around the house. Many of us know that it dissolves mineral deposits from glass, and can be used inside dishwashers and coffee makers (diluted) to do the same. It can also be used to polish bronze and brass and clean stainless steel surfaces.

It has recently been discovered that it is effective as a weed killer (it had better be some strong vinegar). But best of all, it’s environmentally-friendly, non-toxic and safe to use around children and pets.

Ok, so enough of the trivia and back to its culinary uses. I use white vinegar for my household cleaning projects. Malt vinegar is great with fish and chips. Wine vinegar is universal and comes in white wine or red wine styles and both are great as salad dressings but the cheaper ones are harsh tasting. Sherry vinegar is slightly less acidic than wine vinegar and is a nice addition to Mediterranean and Spanish dishes. I especially like adding it to a sauté of red bell peppers and onions that are served with sausages. (I make this dish often. It is really incredible).

Apple cider vinegar is particular healthful and is also great in salad dressings or sauces, as the apple flavor is nice with many meats, especially pork. Fruit vinegars are good on salads especially where the same fruit is featured (e.g., raspberry vinegar on a salad that contains berries).

Balsamic vinegar is my favorite and I love it in a dressing for a green salad or veggie salad, but also as an addition to when I roast things like potatoes and onions. As the foods roast, the balsamic vinegar becomes “sticky” and makes everything extra tasty.

Rice wine vinegars are used a lot in Asian cooking and are also very low in acid. I especially love this vinegar in a cucumber salad I make in the summer*. 

And then there are the herbal vinegars. I mentioned one that I like earlier, but I also adore fig balsamic vinegar, a sort of hybrid between fruit and balsamic. It’s delicious when used along with a quality extra virgin olive oil as a dip for crusty fresh bread. 

Herb vinegars can easily be made at home by starting with a basic vinegar and adding fresh tarragon or thyme sprigs, a few black peppercorns, even chilis and whole garlic cloves, and then letting them sit together in a glass bottle for a week to infuse. They are so much more economical this way. And if you get pretty bottles, some raffia or other decorative ribbon and a cute label, they make lovely gifts.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes using some of the ideas above.

Cucumber Salad
Thinly slice English cucumbers into rounds with a mandolin. Add a pinch of quality sea salt and a little pinch of white pepper, a few splashes of rice wine vinegar and a little salad oil. Mix thoroughly and serve right away. Keeps for a day or two but best eaten fresh on a hot day. Great on a picnic because it travels well.

Salad Dressing
Apple cider vinegar, preferably organic such as Bragg's
1 tsp. honey
a few squirts of Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids
Minced garlic
Minced onion or shallot
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A few grinds of fresh black pepper
A pinch of salt (optional)

Place all items together in a food processor and pulse until the onion and garlic emulsify the dressing. Keeps well in the fridge for several weeks.

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