In its myriad forms, the acidic powerhouse is more than a one-hit wonder in cooking.
The exploration of culinary delights has often been attributed to the successful balance of the basics — salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savoury. The dimension brought about by a harmonious balance of these flavours elevates the simple act of nourishment into new heights: as a relished ritual, a passionate pursuit, and even an emotional experience. Thus, the home cook’s journey in search of good food is rooted in the awareness of balance, to know when, how, and how much should they alter to attain to full gustatory effect.
But for all the nuance implied in this balancing act, when in search of sourness, a typical home pantry would contain just that bottle of white stuff. White vinegar surely does the heavy lifting in introducing an acidic element in our cooking, but its one-dimensional note has created the notion that one does not expect vinegar to work miracles in dishes. Perhaps an unfair judgment, as there is more to vinegar than a mouth-pucker.
The Nature of Vinegar
The term ‘vinegar’ itself comes from the French “vin aigre,” which translates to ‘sour wine’. From its fermented source, a specific group of bacteria called acetobacters converts the alcohol or ethanol into acetic acid, the compound responsible for vinegar’s sour taste. The typical range of acetic acid in vinegar produced by this process is at 5% - 8%. Produce that are utilised to create alcoholic beverages, such as grapes, apples, rice, and grain, can also be turned into vinegars, thereby they share the wild array of varieties and flavours.
Different cultures often have their own staple vinegar, depending on which produce is reliably plentiful in the region. Europe has grape and its variants, East Asia counts on rice, while tropical countries turn to coconut or sugarcane as the primary material. And because the end product transforms distinctively according to its source, the flavours of each regional cuisine is moulded in no small part by the characteristics of their local vinegar.
On the other hand, the common white vinegar can be a mixture of just straight acetic acid and water, with a concentration range of 5% - 20%. Since the acidic compound is introduced simply as a souring agent without the complexity of naturally fermented ingredients, white vinegar is predictable to the point of being monotone, even as it is incorporated in different dishes.
An easy way to try the variety of vinegars is to create a dipping sauce for food you are readily familiar with, and has a mild taste so you can appreciate the differences in each sauce. In this recipe, Balsamic vinegar takes the place of Chinese black vinegar in a sauce for pork dumplings. The tangy but complex Balsamic vinegar shares a similarity with black vinegar, but is sweeter and richer.
Steamed Pork Dumpling Dipping Sauce
(Adapted from the Red House Spice blog)
3 Tbsp. Borges Modena Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. ginger, julienned
Coriander, finely chopped, to taste
(Photo source: https://unsplash.com/photos/q66grqqHpDQ)
Vinegar’s place in the kitchen might be better understood by way of its acidic properties.
Sourness, its most prominent attribute, is caused when acidic foods introduce free hydrogen ions that trigger the sour taste receptors in our tongue. Sourness is not a taste that is primarily enjoyed on its own, as our evolution has it associated with unripe fruit and other less caloric food. However, its inherent volatility allows us to take in more from the odour and flavour compounds that are bound in fat, bringing a sensation of freshness and clarity. From this stems a golden piece of cooking knowledge: adding a splash of citrus or vinegar in oily dishes will “cut through the richness,” enhancing savouriness and delay the satiety that is typical in fatty meals.
Creamy yet light, homemade aioli is an example of the perfect marriage of fat and acid. The nutty subtleties of sherry vinegar will dismiss all misguided notions that aioli is just a garlic-mayo sauce.
Homemade Classic Aioli
(Adapted from the James Beard Foundation website)
As a sauce, aioli can be paired with many dishes, and is especially glorious with vegetables, potatoes, fish, and shellfish that have been steamed, poached, roasted, or lightly fried.
1 Fresh egg yolk
1 Large clove garlic, freshly grated
1 1/2 tsp. Borges Sherry Vinegar
2 tsp. Salt
2 cups Vegetable oil
1 tbsp. Water
Optional: 2 tbsp. Herbs, finely chopped (eg. dill for potatoes and seafood; tarragon for vegetables)
In a large bowl, combine the egg yolk, sherry vinegar, grated garlic, and salt, whisking briskly. Introduce the oil very slowly at the start. As it thickens, add a few drops of water, then continue drizzling oil and whisking well to emulsify, until all the oil has been used. Add in your chosen herb. The aioli will keep in the refrigerator for three days.
(Photo source: https://unsplash.com/photos/mCTatdD2fmk)
Acidity also holds the secret to improving meats, especially through marinating. Vinegar and other acidic ingredients can break apart proteins, a major component of animal tissue. This makes for more tender forkfuls, and allows for flavouring and moisture to penetrate deeper. Marinades are the saving grace of cheaper (therefore, tougher) cuts of meat, and is best for recipes that use high heat, like grilling, frying, and roasting.
A caveat exists for this technique: it is possible to overdo the marinating time, and this can make the meat mushy or tougher. Some of the loose proteins eventually bump into each other and reform their bonds, while others keep on denaturing. Meats should not sit in the marinade for more than 24 hours, unless frozen, which stops the protein break down.
Salt, acid, and oil are the holy trinity of marinades, while herbs and spices bring infinite possibilities to the mix. In this recipe, the fruitiness of apple cider vinegar makes for a great companion for pork’s luscious density. As any marinated meat can be prepared and frozen ahead of time, these pork chops are quick yet satisfyingly complex meal for any busy weekday evening.
Apple Cider Pork Chops
(Adapted from Sugar and Soul blog)
½ cup Apple juice
¼ cup Borges Apple Cider Vinegar
¼ cup Olive oil
1 tbsp Brown sugar
1 tbsp Honey
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Garlic powder
½ tsp Dijon/yellow mustard
⅛ tsp Ground coriander
½ tsp Dried sage
Freshly cracked black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients and pour the resulting mixture over 2-3 medium-sized pork chops. Massage lightly, then put the meat and the marinade inside a re-sealable freezer bag, pushing out as much air as possible before sealing. Let it sit in the marinade up to 24 hours in the refrigerator, or freeze and defrost as needed. Make sure that the meat is at room temperature before grilling or pan-frying on medium-high heat. Cook until the pork chops are well done and are no longer pink in the middle.
(Photo source: https://unsplash.com/photos/Yr4n8O_3UPc)
Flavour of Time
While pickling used to be a commonplace activity that ensures that the food in times of plenty will stretch out in times of scarcity, the convenience of groceries and supermarkets has pushed this and other slow methods of food preservation to the side.
Still, pickling is a curious process where the flavour of the food develops and melds together. And vinegar, as the main pickling agent, lets it happen while safeguarding against spoilage. As it sits, vinegar acts as a preservative to stave off the proliferation of harmful microorganisms in the solution. The sourness actually mellows out after a few days or weeks, and brings out a whole new dimension of deliciousness.
To do a decent job in preserving food, vinegars of at least 5% acetic acid concentration is used, like wine vinegars. Salt and sugar are also often present in the brine to stabilise texture and balance out the taste, while peppers, spices, and fresh herbs become savoury embellishments to the maturing pickle. By doing pickles at home, you can monitor the progress of the pickle, so that the vegetables still retain their crispness but with a flavour that has sufficiently matured.
Pickled Carrots in Tarragon Vinegar
(Adapted from Epicurious)
500 g. Carrots, peeled and cut into thick batons
¾ cup Borges Tarragon Wine Vinegar
¼ cup Distilled water
1 cup White table sugar
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Shallot, peeled, quartered
4 Garlic cloves, peeled
2 Red or green Thai chili
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
In a pan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring to a rolling boil, then set aside. Mix the carrots, shallot, garlic, chilli, peppercorns, and coriander seeds in a bowl before packing them in sterilised glass jars or locking containers. Pour brine solution over the vegetables and make sure that they are submerged. Cool before covering and storing in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.
(Photo source: https://unsplash.com/photos/aj4L38B6j1A)
Beyond a one-note condiment, the whole array of vinegars vary wildly from its source material, processing, and additional infusions, delivering degrees of difference in dishes and also capable of transforming the ingredients themselves. Knowing the range and abilities of vinegar enables the home cook to not just introduce flavour, but evolves the way with which they cook.
See how Borges can bring your cooking to new heights with our Specialty Vinegar series.
If this post on vinegar has made you hunger for more scientific discussions about food, this post on grapeseed oil might suit your palate. Otherwise, we have more food and health topics on this website that might interest you!