For so long, I thought vinegar's main role in my kitchen was as a mate to olive oil in a vinaigrette. Then I encountered poulet au vinaigre de vin (chicken with wine vinegar) when I studied cooking in Paris.
The simple braise of chicken with vegetables, tomatoes and a lot of vinegar demonstrated how the latter could be more than simply the bright element in a salad. Its sharp edges tamed by boiling and transformed with delicious fat (I might want that as my epitaph!), vinegar became the nervy backbone that elevated chicken stew into a dish that I still make frequently all these years later.
Since my chicken epiphany, I use vinegar with enthusiasm: to brighten a pot of garlicky greens; as a catalyst for unlocking flavor in fruit; as a glaze for meat; even as the zingy heart of a sophisticated soda.
• What vinegar is: All vinegars begin as a grain, fruit or vegetable. They get fermented to become an alcoholic liquid. The alcohol in that liquid gets fermented into acetic acid. The result is a liquid with serious tang and some notes of its original ingredient – hence the slight apple-y flavor of apple cider vinegar and the delicate grape notes of white wine vinegar.
The acid range for all vinegars, obtained either naturally or by diluting the base vinegar with water, is between 4% for rice vinegar and 6 to 7% for other culinary vinegars. The acid level matters in preserving but it's not so important in general cooking, so think more about flavor than the number on the bottle.
• The vinegars to have on hand: It's easy to be overwhelmed by the array on any well-stocked store shelves, but I advise you to practice restraint.
Vinegar doesn't really go bad, but I get stressed when my pantry is a-jumble with vinegar bottles, so I try not to have more than about three kinds.
For delicate dishes, I like a white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar. The two have essentially the same character, because the champagne vinegar retains none of the spritz of the actual champagne wine, and it might not even have been made from the type of grapes used for true champagne. I like white wine vinegars from producer Martin Pouret, who uses something called the Orléans method, which takes more time and effort than most commercial processes.
I like to have a red wine vinegar for more robust uses, though I find that many are slap-you-in-the-face harsh, thin and astringent. My go-to is sherry vinegar, which has an appealingly round, woodsy flavor with hints of caramel and vanilla, yet no sweetness whatsoever. If red wine vinegar is a red vinyl booth in a pizza joint, sherry vinegar is a garnet-colored suede banquette in a restaurant where you hope someone else will pick up the tab. It is understated and therefore versatile. Look for a true Spanish brand with some age on it, such as Pedro Ximenez or one of the wonderful José Andrés' vinegars produced by Marchenilla.
Last in my lineup is balsamic, but I type these words with trepidation; rant to follow. Balsamic overuse is rampant in the United States and is somewhat of a minor moral outrage, to me, anyway. A few decades ago, balsamic vinegar wriggled its way into our cooking habits, going from an exquisite, artisanal and expensive product to be enjoyed sparingly – maybe drizzled over shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano – to a ubiquitous sweet brown liquid weighing down salads, too often made from “spring mix” greens.
To be clear: Balsamic vinegar has its place in a salad dressing, but only for green salads that are hardy, such as a warm bacon and frisée salad. (There, I'm finished with my rant.)
Overall, there are better places to deploy the caramel notes and syrupy texture of balsamic than on a salad. Really good balsamic is meant to be consumed as its own thing, but there are plenty of good commercial vinegars made in that style, preferably from Modena, which is home to the real thing. I like Colavita brand.
• How to store vinegar: It keeps well in a dark pantry. Vinegar can't really spoil because it's already spoiled/fermented, and it's acidic, so no fear of using an older bottle.
However, that doesn't mean that vinegar is inert. After many months, some vinegars may develop a film of ooky stuff floating around, especially in unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, which has become popular lately thanks to claims that it has remarkable health benefits, including weight loss. If you're a kombucha maker and you see this stuff in your vinegar, you'll say, “Hello, Mother,” but if not, you might be taken aback by this disk of slime, which is essentially an engine of fermentation – acetobactor bacteria and some cellulose. It is harmless, but you may want to strain it out ... and then use it to start your own vinegar from leftover wine.
• How to integrate it into your cooking: Drizzle a small spoonful onto a bowl of Swiss chard, kale or collards that you have sauteed in plenty of olive oil or oil and bacon grease.
Macerate the vegetables you'll use in gazpacho with a healthy dose of sherry vinegar, and maybe finish the soup with more vinegar and a generous glug of good olive oil.
Make a simple French potato salad by boiling medium- to low-starch potatoes (such as Yukon Golds), crushing them lightly, and then, while they're still hot, moistening them deeply with white-wine vinegar. Finish with olive oil and a ton of salt and pepper, maybe chopped parsley. The potatoes will drink it up and your salad will be light and zippy.
After cooking pork chops, pour off the grease and deglaze your frying pan with a dose of balsamic. Let it simmer until reduced and syrupy and then finish with a chunk of cold butter, to create a sauce.
Give a fruit salad a sweet-savory edge by sprinkling it with white wine vinegar. Dress a strawberry salad with balsamic and a pinch of brown sugar.
Concoct your own drinking vinegar: Combine 1 pound berries and 1 pound sugar; let macerate for 24 hours in the refrigerator, then strain through cheesecloth. Mix that with 2 cups of white wine vinegar, or to taste. Dilute with soda water and serve on ice.
And, of course, make vinaigrettes. Start with a basic ratio of one part vinegar to three parts oil. Season with lots of salt and then taste and adjust with more oil if it's too sharp (or more vinegar if it's not sharp enough). I find that salt can soften the perception of acid in vinegar, so I like to season before I decide whether my vinaigrette is well balanced; pepper can come last.