Vinegar is a magical elixir in the kitchen. It’s produced by acetobacter, a bacterium that thrives in warm, oxygenated environments and transforms alcohol into acetic acid. While acetobacter is the sworn enemy of winemakers (because it can “spoil” large quantities of wine in a short time) it is the friend of homemakers and cooks because it makes food safer and more tasty. Plus, you can disinfect with it.
Included in marinades, vinegar adds aroma, flavor and color while also tenderizing proteins. A dash of vinegar can be added to slow-cooked bone broths to not only draw calcium out of the simmering bones, but also hold the calcium in liquid suspension for best absorption in humans. It is said that vinegar minimizes the flatulence that sometimes, er, punctuates the consumption of dried beans when added to the soaking and cooking liquid.
Yes, you can clean with vinegar. Yes, vinegar will balance skin tone, help you sleep, and restore the beneficial bacteria to your gut. Yes, vinegar is said to keep cats out of the sandbox, remove the mineral scale from your toilet, and ward off the Black Plague. Does it keep the Plague and the cat out of the toilet? Probably.
Do not let the housekeeping and personal health claims dilute the true essence of vinegar: It is a beautiful, aromatic, acidic vessel for flavors of all types, and can only enhance and improve your home cooking. Because of its extremely acidic nature, the addition of vinegar makes food safer and less likely to submit to decay.
A simple way to begin to know the merits of vinegar is to smell it and taste it, because it does degrade over time AND it has the tendency to taste like plastic if it is packaged in plastic. If your vinegar doesn’t smell good, and taste good, throw it out and find a better vinegar. Virginia Vinegar Works is a terrific local product available around town—it is wine vinegar from Virginia wine (plus a malt vinegar made from Starr Hill Amber Ale!). Steph and Jay Rostow live and work in Nelson County, and they use a time-honored French method that preserves the jewel tones and wine characteristics of each wine they transform.
Next step: Play with making some infusions. An infusion is the gradual transfer of flavor and aroma from solid matter into liquid matter; it is a blending across physical lines. For the home cook with a few days’ lead time, passive infusions are perfect because they are absolutely forgiving.
For instance, a luncheon menu includes lump crab salad over butter lettuce; the white wine vinaigrette can begin a few days prior with a passive infusion including preserved lemon, capers, shallots, and tarragon at room temperature in white wine vinegar. When party day arrives, the vinegar can be strained and transformed into a vinaigrette, and flavoring can be adjusted at this point as necessary—a hearty vinegar might need quite a bit of honey. Et voila! A beautiful bottle of the infused vinegar can be re-garnished with tarragon and preserved lemon, and served alongside the croutons dusted with Old Bay, the caper aioli, and the champagne cocktail.
Active infusions consist of applying heat for a short period of time, and then leaving the infusion to rest or soak until it has come back to room temperature. NOTE: Any time vinegar is heated, choose a stainless steel or enamelware pan for heating, and glass for storage! Vinegar is corrosive and, while your aluminum or cast iron pan might survive, nobody wants a ferrous infusion.
Quick pickles are a great example of active infusion; the pickling solution is heated so that the elements season the liquid (classic pickling spice would include peppercorns, coriander, fennel, and bay leaf, plus salt) and the liquid seasons the pickled vegetables. Radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, summer squash, and cucumbers are classic quick-picklers—but who’s to say an apple can’t be quick pickled?
For a condiment that will last a few weeks in the refrigerator, try sliced red onion steeped in an active infusion of apple cider vinegar, mustard seed, juniper berry, and honey: This concoction would be the perfect accompaniment to many wintertime meats like pork (of course) and also venison and rabbit.
Rest assured that the acidic nature of vinegar keeps the whole shebang healthy and happy at room temperature. Whether active or passively infusing, it is not necessary to refrigerate these concoctions until they have steeped for a few days, but they certainly can be refrigerated. The best infusions will be strained and stored without their solids (despite what you may see in discount home stores—hey, they use preservatives, anyway).—Lisa Reeder
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
If it is difficult to decide what type of infusion to make, think of classic culinary “flavor families” from around the world, and then craft an infusion that will include some components of that dish or cuisine.
Champagne vinegar with strawberries or raspberries or blackberries or sliced oranges—or all of these things! We know these flavors go well together because we drink them with brunch or at celebrations. This would be best as a passive infusion, as warming the vinegar will certainly make the fruit taste cooked, and might even destroy a fine champagne vinegar.
Rice vinegar with garlic, ginger, cilantro, and cucumbers—good for seasoning rice or for shaking atop steamed edamame or other vegetables, or mixed into yogurt for a creamy salad dressing.
Red wine vinegar with bay leaf, juniper berry, thyme and honey—baste venison or rabbit with this “game sauce,” then use the pan drippings to construct a sauce for the meat. This would also make a good warm dressing for a spinach or radicchio salad, served slightly wilted.