A bottle of vinegar, a dish of olives and a container of kosher salt resting on a table.
Food & Drink

The Nuanced Language of Vinegar

Vinegar brings balance

Generally speaking, there are five basic tastes that humans can perceive (possibly six according to this TED Talk).  They are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the infamous umami, a deep complex savory flavor that many epicureans chase.  Flavor profiles are created by combining these tastes, but very few ingredients connect these elements together as well as vinegar.

Vinegar brings balance between seemingly contrasting flavors while also brightening dishes with pucker-inducing tartness. That notable sour taste of vinegar can bring out the sweet tang of a barbecue sauce.  Its pungent pop can amplify the fat in a luscious chimichurri.  Vinegar can even add a sweet complexity to baked treats.  Eggless cakes, which were likely created due to a ration on eggs during World War II, rely on vinegar to react with flour proteins to hold the cake together, help them rise and make the cakes fluffy.   

That’s because vinegar is an acid with a complex flavor that is built over time.  Vinegar can be made from virtually any product that has sugar in it — honey, sorgum molasses, grapes, carrots, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables.  The magic of vinegar is achieved through fermentation when acetic acid bacteria breaks down the sugars.  “Vinegar may be the result of fermented sugar,” says Isaiah Billington, Owner of Keepwell Vinegar in Dover, Pennsylvania, “but when done properly, it will have no sugar at the end of it.”

“Vinegar is a phenomenal way to push flavor, aroma and nuance into your food without having to rely on sugar, salt or fat,”

With a strict commitment to local sourcing practices, Keepwell Vinegar develops well-crafted vinegar from fermentable sugars that nearby farms would otherwise discard.  Think of apples that aren’t going to be pressed into apple cider, grapes that aren’t going into jellies, and heirloom tomatoes that aren’t aesthetically pleasing enough to be sold at farmers market — instead of letting produce go to waste, Keepwell Vinegar is turning them into something that elevates people’s dining experiences.

“Vinegar is a phenomenal way to push flavor, aroma and nuance into your food without having to rely on sugar, salt or fat,” says Billington.  But even though vinegar is pretty versatile, it’s an ingredient that remains vastly underutilized in many kitchens.  Perhaps It’s because selecting a vinegar can be overwhelming.  Take a walk down the grocery aisle where shelves of vinegar are stocked with everything from giant jugs of apple cider to tiny bottles of expensive balsamic, aged for years and imported from Modena, Italy.  With so many different vinegars to choose from and a wide price range, selecting the right vinegar can be difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Billington recommends first deconstructing your meal – appetizers, salad, sides, entrée and even dessert and cocktails — and thinking about how vinegar can be used to either balance or enhance those flavors.  Vinegars can be mixed with oils and herbs to create dressings and vinaigrettes.  They can also balance sweetness in baked goods like in these sticky cinnamon rolls.  Vinegar can also give more sweetness without adding extra sugar and balance out the bitterness of citrus in this bitter lemon negroni

You can also use vinegars to marinate or braise your meats, but to take full advantage of its acidic properties, Billington recommends cooking the meat in a bath of vinegar.  That’s because it helps to make tough meats tender and permeates the meat to make it more flavorful.  Pork shoulder, for instance, will fall off the bone and make for a nice Carolina-style pulled pork when slow cooked in apple cider vinegar. 

Once you know what you’re going to make, select your vinegar accordingly.  Though they are foundational vinegars, try to think outside of apple cider vinegar, white and red wine vinegars, and even balsamic. There are plenty of craft vinegars experimenting with other kinds of fermentable sugars.  Some of Keepwell Vinegar’s most unique flavors include sorghum molasses vinegar which can punch up any barbecue sauce, chanterelle vinegar which leverages wild mushroom to develop a nutty and fruity flavor, and even black garlic, a funky vinegar that has become a customer favorite.

A quality vinegar doesn’t have to be thick and syrupy like the sticky balsamic you drizzle on fruits or on top of a scoop of ice cream.  “If you really want to be looking at high-quality vinegar, look at the ingredients,” says Billington.  “If it starts with a ‘red wine vinegar’, you’re at least starting an honest conversation.  But if the ingredients list starts with ‘cooked grape must’ with a little vinegar added, then you’re being sold fat and syrup.”

Written By Kae Lani Palmisano Food Writer & TV Host Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.