When I was growing up, there was just one vinegar for seasoning, White House Apple Cider vinegar, and Mom used white vinegar in canning. Now my pantry is not complete without at least a dozen vinegars.
Vinegar is indispensable in salad dressings, in certain marinades, and to perk up the acidity of a lot of dishes. I am constantly chiding my cooks about acidity and making them taste a sauce before and after the addition of a dash of vinegar or lemon juice. A long cooked sauce without sufficient acidity tastes flat and one dimensional. Add a little vinegar or other acid and the whole sauce brightens. Here is a list of the vinegars in my pantry and their uses.
Our workhorse vinegar for salad dressings, this sweet, aged vinegar from Modena in Italy is made from the juice of grapes, primarily the Trebbiano grape. The juice is boiled down over open flame and then placed into wooden barrels with some older vinegar to start the acetification. Aged for a minimum of twelve years, the vinegar is transferred periodically to barrels of different woods to add different flavor components. You should have at least two balsamicos in your pantry: a mid-priced one for salad dressings and cooking, and an older one to use by the drop for seasoning (such as on melons, prosciutto, tomatoes, steak, strawberries, and so forth).
Grape Wine Vinegar
Wine vinegar is what happens naturally when wine is exposed to the air and airborne acetobacter bacteria. In fact, at home, I make all my own vinegar—it’s that easy. At the restaurant, we use red wine and white wine vinegar from Maille in France, primarily in our salad dressings. White wine vinegar is also my workhorse vinegar for pickles, chutneys, and sauces. There are many named wine vinegars such as Champagne vinegar and Cabernet vinegar, most of which tend to be of very fine quality with underlying flavor components from the base wine. In particular, we use two named vinegars a lot at the restaurant: Moscatel (brand Unio) vinegar and Sherry vinegar, both from Spain. Moscatel is an amber colored sweet vinegar that we use in flavoring sweet-sour dishes such as peach chutney. Sherry vinegar is also amber colored, fairly strong, and wonderfully nutty. It is incomparable in gazpachos and in romesco sauces. I use it whenever I want a nutty flavor component. And at home, I have some outstanding 50-year old sherry vinegar that I use by the drop, like aged balsamic.
Flavored Wine Vinegar
These are wine vinegars that have been flavored with some agent, generally a fruit or an herb. Two that are used frequently are raspberry vinegar and tarragon vinegar. Although I typically buy raspberry vinegar, I make tarragon vinegar which is as simple as walking to the garden, cutting some tarragon, washing it, and stuffing it in a bottle of good quality white wine vinegar. We do not typically use flavored vinegars at the restaurant, preferring instead to work with the fresh flavoring ingredients.
Rice Wine Vinegar
These are the vinegars of the Orient and are well worth knowing. Although there are many kinds being made, we use three different ones at the restaurant. We use plain (unsweetened) rice wine vinegar (brand Kong Chen) whenever we want good vinegar flavor without overwhelming acidity. This is often the vinegar that I select for the dressing for my lunch salad. We also use sweetened rice vinegar (called “Seasoned,” brand Marukan with the yellow lid, not the green lid). We use the sweetened rice vinegar in making our Thai dipping sauce of vinegar, sugar, fish sauce, and chile paste. We also use it for flavoring our sushi rice for staff sushi meals. And we use Chinese black vinegar (brand Gold Plum), called Chinkiang after the province where the best black vinegars are made from glutinous rice. Black vinegar can be incredibly complex and is in its own right as good as any balsamic. I use black vinegar for dipping, for barbeque sauces, for meat marinades, for braising meat (especially pork), and sometimes as a substitute for balsamic. There is also a red rice vinegar with which I have no experience.
Those of us living in Winchester surely know when National Fruit (our local apple processing plant) is making a new batch of apple cider vinegar! In the fall, we start smelling vinegar when the wind is to the north. A good all purpose vinegar, I reach for it for pickling cucumbers, making mignonettes, and acidifying Mexican dishes, especially adobos. White House brand is way better than Heinz, but the French brands have them all beat. Cider vinegar is all about the apples used to make the cider and the French have cider making down to an art form.
Strangely enough, malt vinegar has never been in my culinary vocabulary. I guess growing up in apple country will do that to you. Made by the same process as beer, malt vinegar starts as barley that is sprouted (called malting), then brewed into an unhopped ale, and acetified. Commonly used on fish and chips, but I like my fish unfried and my chips without vinegar.
White (or Distilled) Vinegar
White vinegar is an industrial product: acetic acid from any source, distilled to remove flavor and color, and diluted to a specific concentration (4% to 5%). We use a lot of white vinegar at the restaurant, especially as a deliming agent in our dishwasher and in our food warmer. We have to get all those white lime deposits off our glasses and plates! White vinegar is a pretty good disinfectant too and we use a lot of it to wipe down counters and equipment. We do not use it in cooking.