The world of vinegars

Vinegar is a liquid consisting mainly of acetic acid (CH3COOH) and water. The acetic acid is produced by the fermentation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria. Vinegar is now mainly used as a cooking ingredient, but historically, as the most easily available mild acid, it had a great variety of industrial, medical, and domestic uses, some of which (such as a general household cleanser) are still promoted today.

Commercial vinegar is produced either by fast or slow fermentation processes. In general, slow methods are used with traditional vinegars, and fermentation proceeds slowly over the course of months or a year. The longer fermentation period allows for the accumulation of a nontoxic slime composed of acetic acid bacteria. Fast methods add mother of vinegar (i.e., bacterial culture) to the source liquid before adding air using a venturi pump system or a turbine to promote oxygenation to obtain the fastest fermentation. In fast production processes, vinegar may be produced in a period ranging from 20 hours to three days.

Vinegar comes in many different forms (all of them tart!). Although red or white wine is the most common liquid base, anything that ferments can be used to make vinegar. Here are the common types of vinegar used in foods:

Cider vinegar: Made from apples, this strong, clear, brown vinegar holds up well with pungent greens and is especially good in marinades.

White vinegar: Colorless and sharp, white vinegar is distilled from assorted grains, and it’s terrific in cold rice or pasta salads.

Red or white wine vinegar: Made from any number of red or white wines, this vinegar is full bodied and perfect for dressing pungent, dark greens.

Rice vinegar: Common to Japan and China, rice vinegars are less tart than white vinegars and combine well with sesame oil.

Balsamic vinegar: A dark, sweet, syrupy vinegar. Use it on salads, in sauces, or drizzled over fresh fruit.