Flavor Enhancers – The Magic of Vinegar

Vinegar is as old as time itself, a likely byproduct of the Big Bang. Technically the result of decomposing foods and the beverage once known as wine, vinegar is the substance that made the world’s first batteries possible. Aside from being the go-to solution for dissolving lime deposits in teapots and thousands of other household uses, vinegar has an alter ego in the culinary world.  Still used to preserve foods today, vinegar, or more specifically a liquid form of acid, can literally transform a dish from just good – to WOW!

Most condiments have some sort of acid, if not vinegar as an ingredient: mustard, mayonnaise, chutneys, salad dressings, barbecue sauces, peanut dipping sauce, and hot chili sauces to name a few. Try to make a tasty catsup without vinegar: use all the other ingredients including tomato paste, water, sugar, salt, and a pinch of onion powder. I guarantee you’ll not be squirting it on your French fries.

What acids do is balance the sweet and saltiness in foods with their tremendous power to brighten flavor. It isn’t always necessary (or even desirable) to taste added vinegar and most of the time just a little will do. Chances are you are enjoying unperceptable vinegar in these foods: cream soups, dessert sauces, jams and jellies, bouillon, gravy mixes, and ‘spices’, the catch-all term to protect secret seasonings used by food manufacturers. What do all these foods have in common? Salt, sugar, or both. It is the magic of vinegar that bridges the gap between two opposite ends of the flavor spectrum.

How do I use Acids?

Acids can alter the texture of foods by breaking down their fibers and changing chemical bonds.  Little Miss Muffet used vinegar to transform her milk in to curds and whey. Similarly, lemon and lime juice is used in ceviche, a raw seafood dish that is ‘cooked’ by the acid in citrus and made more appealing to eat. Besides vinegar and citrus juices, other ingredients that impart acid to a dish include mustard, pickled products, sour foods like cherries and tamarind, wine, cultured dairy such as yogurt and sour cream, and goat cheese. Any of these foods can be used in just a small amount to vastly improve the flavor of your dish.

As for vinegars, apple cider, champagne vinegar, rice vinegar, and white wine vinegar are perfect with milder foods including white fish, chicken (white meat), shellfish, and vegetables. Lemon and lime juice can also be used successfully with mild foods.  Red wine vinegar compliments heartier dishes nicely where beef, pork, chicken (dark meat), and fatty fish like salmon are used.

And the king of vinegars – balsamic – is in a class all by itself, known for its very bold flavor and smooth aged sweetness.  The longer it ages the sweeter and thicker it becomes. Use balsamic vinegar with grilled foods or where you want to feature its wonderful taste as in drizzled over summer’s ripe strawberries. Buy the best quality you can. The more you feature vinegar prominently in a dish the more obvious cheap vinegar will be.

Flavored Vinegars

This innovation takes vinegars of all kinds and imparts another flavor through steeping and aging. Fruit flavored vinegars that are based on balsamic vinegar offer the better of two worlds – a marriage of savory aged wine and sweet ripe fruits. These delicious vinegar inspires endless uses. I enjoy them as a dressing for a garden salad or added to sauteed vegetables.  Just a splash can transform fruit juices such as apple cider or orange juice to an amazing, refreshing drink.  Coming in part 2, fabulous vinaigrettes.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Linda on May 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    very informative. Thanks. I sometimes forget to add vinegar to foods, especially soups. A good reminder.

    You mentioned tamarind. I love the flavor in Asian foods when I’m in a restaurant but know very little about how to use it myself. Perhaps a future posting???



    • Hi Linda, thank you for your question about tamarind. It is a unique food ingredient with both sweet and sour traits. The origin is believed to be Africa and its use spread to India, the Middle East, and South East Asia. The sweeter variety is used in desserts, and the sour variety in curries, chutneys and lentil dishes (it tastes somewhat like a cross between a lemon and a lime and can be substituted with either). You will definately pick out its distinctive flavor in a Thai Hot & Sour Soup.

      Tamarind has been used for medicinal purposes for several millennia as a drink, poultice, and fiber additive to foods. It seems to have antibacterial properties and one of the moret popular uses is for digestive ailments. It has impressive quantities of vitamins and minerals as well, and high in antioxidants. Asian markets are a source for the concentrated form and sometimes the unprocessed pod that it grows in.


  2. Posted by Gord on May 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

    As a comment to the previous comment, I have been experimenting with tamarind lately and would like to know more too.

    On Vinegar: I did some experimenting with the Salsa recipe that you posted a while back, making several batches and adding different things to them to see what happened. One batch go some Balsamic Vinegar, but it did not seem to work out at all. It is a good thing you posted this: I would have abandoned it as an ingredient. Now I understand that I just used too much.

    What types of Vinegar would you suggest testing in that Salsa as a base, and how much would you use?




    • Hi Gord, please see the post above this one for some information on tamarind. Thank you for trying the salsa recipe, by the way! I would stick with lime juice, followed by lemon juice if lime were unavailable, but I think I’d skip vinegar in that type of dish. If I were going to experiment, though, I’d start with tarragon vinegar because of its ‘herby’taste. Maybe even steep a little cilantro in the tarragon vinegar to bring it closer to the mark. Would love to know how your experiments turn out!


  3. Posted by Lois Szydlowski on May 28, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Thanks Joy for all your info on vinegar…I wish I had the time to explore all the wonderful ingredients we have access to…oils, ethnic ingredients…you name it….I have some Fig Vinegar by Perel that I like….but like so many other ingredients I forget I have it in my cabinet that keeps growing everyday! You peeked my interest and will have to pick up Bellindora’s Balsamic Pomegranate Vinegar at V-Spicery–the next time you go, give me a shout, would like to tag along. I have Pomegranate Molasses in my cabinet that I like, but don’t use too often. I used Tamarind last week as you know when I made Pad Thai….interesting product…I bought the paste (our Asian market on Fowler, just east of Nebraska, across the street from another wonderful Indian Market) that came in a clear package and I had to soak it in warm water, then press it through a strainer–or squeeze with your hands to extract the seeds and pulp. Thanks again Joy.


  4. Posted by Deb G on May 29, 2012 at 7:10 am

    And let us not forget it’s ability to turn plain milk into buttermilk or even home made ricotta – you’ll never use store bought again!


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