In the US, vinegar is loosely defined as being a solution containing a minimum of 4% acetic acid. It can be made from a wide range of base ingredients, but the underlying process is essentially the same. Instead of yeast, the microorganism known as acetobacter, sometimes also called acetic acid bacteria is used. It takes the alcohol, along with oxygen that’s available, and converts them into acetic acid, the compound responsible for vinegar’s sour, pungent flavor. Then bam, you’ve got vinegar.
Growing up, the only vinegar I commonly heard was just plain old vinegar and apple cider vinegar. It wasn’t until I grew up and going to restaurants that I learned that there were far more vinegars out there than I knew. Here is a basic guideline to at least start from.
Red & White Wine Vinegars
This includes everything from your basic red and white to sherry These are your go to vinegars, great for simple salad dressings, for punching up sauces. If you have a couple of these in your arsenal, you can turn to them again and again. Red wine vinegar tends to be a little sharper than white wine, so if you only want to have one on hand, keep white on deck.
With champagne vinegar, it’s important to note that for every excellent product, there are just as many champagne wannabes or fakes. Champagne vinegar can be made anywhere in France, and therefore varies drastically in quality. For starters, check to make sure that the main ingredient listed is Champagne grapes. If you have the chance to taste it, the vinegar should have a sharp, tingly taste. Champagne vinegar is great for salads as well as a base for mayonnaise.
The best-known version of black vinegar is Chinkiang, named for a city near Shanghai. Japan, however, also has a culture of kurozu, its own style of black vinegar, which is derivative of its Chinese counterpart but not nearly as dark. The Chinese style can be made of grains and rice, while the Japanese one is made of rice only. Both are fermented in closed containers, left out in the sun for extended periods of time until they turn a dark amber color (think dark chocolate). They have a funky sort of flavor, somewhere between a natural wine and an aged whiskey taste. You can use black vinegar in braises and glazes, or doctor it with ingredients like ginger, garlic, or sesame oil to make a quick and punchy dipping sauce.
There are several different tiers of balsamic vinegar. Tradizionale is the highest quality, followed by bottles marked IGP (indicazione geografica protetta), or PGI (protected geographical indication) in English—similar to the designation that identifies Champagne. IGP is regulated more heavily than the lowest tier of basic, “condiment”-quality balsamic, but costs significantly less. You can use it in crisp salads, on top of cheese-stuffed pastas, and even on desserts. But keep in mind that the better the balsamic, the less heat you want to apply to it in cooking. You should avoid heating tradizionale whenever possible. Less pricey IGP balsamics are great for cooking and you can try using them in barbecue sauces, or brush them on red meats like a roast before cooking.