I adore vinegar; at one point I found myself living alone with 6 different types. Now that I don't live alone 6 varieties doesn't seem crazy. (It would be 7 but I left my malt vinegar at my parents house.) And believe me, if I find another kind I will buy it. These 6 are all that are available at my nearest grocery store.
Yesterday I was asked about using different vinegars for the cucumbers I put on the burger. I realized that I'll often write something like "a mild vinegar" without ever fully explaining what I mean. So here is a quick run down of vinegars common in the American household.
I own a rather large bottle of this because I use it for cleaning appliances (like my coffee maker) in addition to cooking. Generally, I use plain white vinegar in cooking if I want a neutral tanginess and quite a bit of something sweet will also be added. This is my favorite for traditional pickling. If you measure (or just have a steady hand) a little splash can be added to dishes when you need just a touch of acid. But be careful, it can easily overpower food.
Apple cider, white wine, and red wine vinegars are what I call mild vinegars even though they are really more medium-ish; they are mild by comparison to the regular white. While each has a unique flavor, they are all relatively equal in acidity. I find they can generally be used interchangeably. (Likewise, lemon and lime juice can often be substituted in equal amounts for these vinegars.) These are the perfect everyday vinegars; great for marinades, vinaigrettes, and just to punch up the flavor of food. I would also include sherry vinegar in this category.
In Asian markets you can find a wide variety of rice vinegars. In the regular grocery store it is often plain old regular rice [wine] vinegar. It comes in seasoned and unseasoned... buy unseasoned! It is more versatile. Seasoned rice vinegar means it has sugar added. It is slightly less acidic than the "milds" but they may be substituted for one another in a pinch. I reserve my rice vinegar specifically for Asian foods: broths, dipping sauces, marinades, etc.
It is a touch on the sweet side, and the more it has been aged, the sweeter it is. For general use, go with a lightly aged variety (3-5 years). Balsamic instantly adds a punch of Italian flair to food. It is great for marinades, sauces, and salads. Reduce your everyday balsamic it into a syrup that adds a unique sweetness to savory and dessert applications.
The Ta-Da and Finishing Vinegars
There are a lot of boutique vinegars popping up in addition to the traditional "condiment" vinegars (like English malt vinegar): white balsamic, herb infused wine vinegars, fruit balsamics, champagne, other various wines distilled in vinegar, I've even seen truffle infused vinegar. They are often much milder than the standard grocercy store shelf varieties. My rule of thumb with these is to apply as little heat as possible to them, and the more expensive it is the less heat you use. Use them in raw applications such as vinaigrettes and as just a finishing sprinkle of acid over a dish, like squeezing a lemon over your plate.
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