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Fat Guy

Cooking with vinegar

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For several years, I've been using vinegar to boost acidity in many dishes. A little red-wine vinegar in a batch of lentil soup, or a little cider vinegar in chili, is like turning up a setting on the flavor equalizer that is normally left too low. Yet, when I tell people I've added vinegar to something, they're almost always surprised.

We've touched on this issue here and there, but now I want to put it out there: people generally cook with too little acidity, and vinegar is the easiest way to increase acidity in most cooking

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I always add vinegar to my gravy. I brown flour with the drippings, add a good glug of vinegar, then water or stock.

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A shot of apple cider vinegar in salsa. Vinegar-pickled chiles gueros in ceviche. Touch of appropriate vinegar in a pan sauce.

Don't knock it till you've tried it.

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Secret ingredients around here are rice, black, and sherry vinegar, for the reasons mentioned above. Both are subtle enough that a tsp or two goes unnoticed as "vinegar," but the flavors boost in dozens of dishes. Just added a dash of black vinegar to a black bean pork dish tonight, in fact.

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Well, it's not vinegar, but there are lots of times a little lemon juice is the perfect acid. And occasionally, mustard (which has vinegar in it). And I think that's really the "secret" of Worcestershire sauce -- it behaves a bit like a vinegar.

Vinegar is perfect for rounding off many rich braises, especially meats.

With all acids, though, I find you have to add them towards the end of cooking, or they disappear -- more secrecy than I want from an ingredient.

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I use vinegar regularly. I like sherry vinegar and I like several of the Cuisine Perel flavored vinegars. I just brought back apricot vinegar and strawberry vinegar from Germany.

I also like to use vinegar based Crystal Hot Sauce on many vegatables and in macaroni and cheese and other things.

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It's not just vinegar but all souring agents that add zing to cooking. My pantry includes the following, which I use according to the requirements of the dish:

Balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, black vinegar, frozen ice cubes of lemon juice, tamarind extract (this is a key ingredient of Worcestershire sauce), lime juice, raspberry vinegar, dehydrated lemon skin, and verjuice.

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I agree with the acidity being a needed flavor balance along the lines of the "hot, sour, salty, sweet".

From a cultural standpoint I grew up with a bottle of plain old white vinegar on the table to add to soups and stews (AustriHungarian cooking background)

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I like to have a variety of them on hand for different applications. Probably my most infamous use, among friends, is as an addition to the water when boiling large dice potatoes for potato salad. It helps keep the shape very crisp and clean so my potato salad is very precise looking. I also use it as an additive to the water when boiling other non-green vegetables, like tournèd carrots, or diced turnips.

I also use it as a flavor balancing agent in certain sauces like glazes, and dips.

I can second the use in salsa. I learned to make salsa back in the 70's when lemons/limes were still seasonal fruits in supermarkets, and often very dear in price. Certain regional salsas do not use citrus fruits at all, since they were not traditionally available there.

I also like to experiment with it in salad dressings which may seem obvious, but, changing the type of vinegar can make a huge difference!

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I have a good variety of vinegars at home, and use a few different kinds at work. I always try and keep as many different kinds around as possible - I think too many people confuse acidity levels with salinity as well, at least that i've seen. A good vinegar can really make or break a dish, so I try and invest in nice ones.

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Like the rabbit and nickrey above, I end up using lemon juice most often for this purpose (and, as with some other seasonal products, I freeze the juice of fresh ripe lemons and limes in season -- the lemons preferably from a local tree, which are numerous -- in little pucks of a couple tablespoons each). These juices freeze extremely well and are then instantly available.

I don't see the finishing of dishes with a little acid as secret (maybe "forgotten" would describe it better) because I learned it from recipes in various popular cookbooks spanning many years. A modern example that uses lemon juice here and there to touch up (very effectively) creative pasta dishes (themselves unusual and interesting), even with cream, is the original 1984 Chez Panisse Pasta-Pizza-Calzone Cookbook (Waters, Curtan, Labro), ISBN 0394530942, reissued 1995 in paperback as ISBN 0679755365. (It's the classic cookbook from the casual café that spun off from Alice Waters's Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley -- the café is a separate business with much more casual format and different cooking methods, upstairs from the original restaurant.)

Something I found counter-intuitive in such recipes, including in older cookbooks, is that they often do it with cream-sauced dishes. Seemed kind of counterintuitive because of the curdling issue, but it works perfectly to cut blandness from creamy sauces, and in moderation (without further cooking) doesn't curdle them.

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With all acids, though, I find you have to add them towards the end of cooking, or they disappear -- more secrecy than I want from an ingredient.

Note that acetic acid (the acid in vinegars) is volatile, much like alcohol, and can cook out completely. ("White" vinegar is distilled vinegar.)

Citric and tartaric acid (in fruit) and others are organic solids, and don't cook off in the same way. But cooking can easily drive off the subtle flavors that come with them, and accelerate reactions that may neutralize the acids.

(I've handled all of these acids in pure form. The fruit acids are rather benign crystalline solids, looking like sugar, and they taste like the sourness of fruit. Acetic acid though is dangerous, and smells harsh, in concentrated form. I know how dangerous, because it was responsible for the only chemical burn I've had.)

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I add some kind of acidity to almost everything I cook. I don't keep a ton of vinegars (Chinkiang, red, rice, white and red wine, one with raspberry bought accidentally but used occasionally, white distilled, sherry, apple cider). Maybe that is a lot. I also always have lemons and limes and will squirt it on everything: chicken off the grill, guacamole (lime and lots of it for me). When I started adding it at the end of a batch of chili it felt like a revolution: I've never looked back.

Also, not vinegar but it serves a similar purpose: for wine sauces or anything with a decent base of wine (a braise) I like to add a little bit of raw wine at the end. It stays vibrant and you get the acidity or the wine, echoing and lifting up some muted elements of the sauce. Just like a good wine, a sauce should have good structure as well as a lively set of top notes and the raw wine helps with this.

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This sounds interesting, I'm looking forward to trying it! Usually when I cook with vinegar, it's one of the predominant flavors; I've never tried it as a subtle addition, but I do believe in the balance of flavors in cooking, so should be tasty! Thanks for the tip!

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I grew up in the rural south with a bottle of "pepper sauce" on the table, which was a bottle filled with a mix of sweet and hot peppers over which a heated cider vinegar had been poured. The vinegar was then applied, via a shaker top, to most anything, particularly to cooked greens or braised meats and vegetables. It was one of the four condiments always on our table, along with salt, black pepper and Tabasco (which was "hot sauce" as opposed to "pepper sauce").

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It's interesting to me that vinegar is disdained in some contexts, like bigos, as a cheap substitute for wine or sour apples, but then there are things like filipino style adobo (and a number of other filipino dishes as well) that are all about the vinegar, and the choice of vinegars will affect the flavor profile in a major way. Polish cuisine has a lot of sour fermented things (kwasy) that are added to soups and other dishes (like fermented beet juice, which is typical of Polish borscht, but not Russian borscht), but they don't seem to have a lot of kinds of vinegar, while you can find shelves of different filipino vinegars (white, cane, dark cane, select Ilocano style dark cane, coconut, hot pepper, and various infused vinegars).

Good sherry vinegar is useful in a lot of contexts, and is surprisingly inexpensive even for premium aged varieties, particularly compared to balsamic.

High quality Japanese brown rice vinegar is also nice, not unlike a good sherry vinegar.

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I agree on adding the acid just before serving to retain its vibrancy.

You also do not need much at all. Sometimes a sauce will need a little bit of something and I'll add a few drops of sherry vinegar. This is enough to take it from flat to tasty. If you overdo it, like any flaovuring ingedient, you lose the balance of the dish as a whole.

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I grew up in the rural south with a bottle of "pepper sauce" on the table, which was a bottle filled with a mix of sweet and hot peppers over which a heated cider vinegar had been poured. The vinegar was then applied, via a shaker top, to most anything, particularly to cooked greens or braised meats and vegetables. It was one of the four condiments always on our table, along with salt, black pepper and Tabasco (which was "hot sauce" as opposed to "pepper sauce").

Same story here. My grandma still makes her own hot vinager and keeps it on the table. Living here in Eastern NC, the mention of vinegar instantly brings barbeque to my mind. I have to admit though, while I do love vinegar based sauces on my barbeque, in just everyday cooking I will almost always reach for a lemon before vinegar to add acidity to a dish. Keeping some vinegar handy to finish dishes sounds like a good thing to try.

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With some dishes, I don't add any vinegar to the dish itself, but serve it with a side dish with plenty of vinegar. For instance, I almost always serve broccoli in a sharp vinaigrette alongside macaroni and cheese. I don't want to add extra acid to the mac and cheese, but it benefits from an acidic salad on the side.

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I grew up in the rural south with a bottle of "pepper sauce" on the table, which was a bottle filled with a mix of sweet and hot peppers over which a heated cider vinegar had been poured. The vinegar was then applied, via a shaker top, to most anything, particularly to cooked greens or braised meats and vegetables. It was one of the four condiments always on our table, along with salt, black pepper and Tabasco (which was "hot sauce" as opposed to "pepper sauce").

Same story here. My grandma still makes her own hot vinager and keeps it on the table. Living here in Eastern NC, the mention of vinegar instantly brings barbeque to my mind. I have to admit though, while I do love vinegar based sauces on my barbeque, in just everyday cooking I will almost always reach for a lemon before vinegar to add acidity to a dish. Keeping some vinegar handy to finish dishes sounds like a good thing to try.

I'm curious about these hot vinegars. How exactly does one go about making them? What kind of vinegar works best? What chiles would you use?

Yeah I'm such a noob. :(

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I'm curious about these hot vinegars. How exactly does one go about making them? What kind of vinegar works best? What chiles would you use?

Yeah I'm such a noob. :(

The peppers used can vary, but I've always seen Apple Cider vinegar used for this purpose. If I'm not mistaken you can put the peppers in a jar, and pour the heated vinegar over them and let them sit. I have not personally done this, so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

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GOT to have a decent shot of red wine vinegar in my tuna salad with mayo, onions and celery. Just wakes up the whole thing!

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I use vinegar as a last line of defense to reduce too much acidity in a tomato sauce. I'm talking about the screeching acidity you can get in a tomato sauce made from very acidic canned tomatoes. First I add salt, to bring out other flavors in the sauce to balance the acidity, and if that doesn't work, I try a little sugar. When that doesn't work, I reach for the vinegar bottle. The cook who gave me this tip suggested cider vinegar. I don't like the taste of cider vinegar in tomato sauce, so I've tried other vinegars, like red wine vinegar. It works. The vinegar masks the offensive acidity. You taste the vinegar more and the over-the-top acidity of the canned tomatoes less.

Besides brightening a sauce, vinegar can be the sauce. I like this reduced vinegar sauce on fried fish, or baked or broiled fish that has been rubbed with olive oil. Malt Vinegar Reduction: Combine 1 1/2 cups malt vinegar with 1 TB brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Reduce by 2/3. Drizzle lightly over fish. My adaptation of a recipe from Chef Mike C at Kitchen on Fire. http://www.kitchenonfire.com/

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I'm reading Marcia Adams's "More Recipes From Quilt Country" a further examination of Amish/Mennonite cooking. (If you don't own it, or the original "Cooking from Quilt Country" race to amazon.com and buy them now.)

I was struck at how much vinegar was used in these recipes: meats, salads, vegetables, even desserts.

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I use vinegar as a last line of defense to reduce too much acidity in a tomato sauce. I'm talking about the screeching acidity you can get in a tomato sauce made from very acidic canned tomatoes.

How long are you cooking the tomatoes for? After more prolonged cooking they tend to flip from acidic to sweet.

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