Thousands of years ago, a courtier in Babylonia a discovery that grape juice left undisturbed, turns to a pleasantly intoxicating liquid – wine. Shortly after that discovery another even more auspicious discovery followed; wine left undisturbed and exposed to air, turns to vinegar, but it took a long time for cooks to incorporate this acid ingredient into their daily use for sauces, pickles, salad dressings and marinades.
Babylonians soon found out vinegar’s preservative powers when sued in pickling. Assyrians, ancient Greeks, Romans, and Cleopatra found many uses for vinegar.
Today vinegar is used as an ingredient in many recipes, as well as industrial products. It is a disinfectant, can be used for window cleaning, as a descaler of coffee pots, stain remover, deodorant, hair conditioner, cat repellent, and weed killer.
In industry, vinegar is employed in the production of textiles, plastics, fabrics, photographic materials, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and branded households items.
Vinegar production is relatively easy, but quality can only be achieved with primary ingredient of superior taste and potential to develop to an even better product.
Once can produce vinegar easily by adding sugar to water, and fermenting it by introducing yeast to the solution. Once yeast have converted all the sugar to alcohol, leave the liquid undisturbed and soon airborne acetobacter will find it, converting alcohol to acetic acid. In industrial production, the least expensive alcohol base is injected with oxygen to speed up the conversion. White vinegar essentially lacks taste – it contains acetic acid at a certain ( 4 – 5 % ) concentration.
If white or red wine is used as a base, the vinegar, pending on the taste of the base product, will like the grape variety from which it was derived. Similarly cider, rice or malt can be used as a base. Each will have a distinct taste appealing to different segments of the population. This depends on upbringing, cultural background and environmental influences.
Vinegar must age to become smooth and palatable. Young vinegars taste rough and raw, but are inexpensive.
All vinegars are filtered for clarity and most are pasteurized for safety.
The speed of vinegar production depends on the availability of oxygen ; a barrel-fermented and aged vinegar interacts with oxygen on the surface. In the 19th century vats with loosely packed wood chips allowed faster production. The vinegar trickled over the chips thus accelerating aeration and hence conversion to acetic acid.
Manufacturers flavour ordinary, commercial vinegar for extra taste dimension. Some of these flavouring agents are; tarragon, raspberry, blueberry, lemon basil, blueberry, thyme.
Malt vinegar is produced from malted barley and possesses a distinct taste particularly complimentary to fish and chips.
Rice vinegar may be red (sweet and sour) or white (mild) or black (salty and sweetish) for stir-fried foods, and sushi and sashimi.
Cider vinegar has distinct apple tang and is often used in countries with considerable apple production i.e. France, the UK, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.
The “capital” of vinegar in France is Orleans, located on the banks of the Loire River. Wine vinegars has been popular for centuries with French chefs.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling are all used for vinegar production. All are deeply flavoured and well worth seeking.
Champagne vinegar, exclusively produced in the Champagne region, has millions of aficionados not only in France but in many other countries. Champagne vinegar may cost more than a good bottle of wine.
Sherry vinegar is world famous, absolutely delightful, flavourful and very expensive. Available in fine grocery stores in North America.
Balsamic vinegar, the specialty of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, Italy has appellation controllee status. Authentic balsamic vinegar is very expensive. If a grocery store offers balsamic vinegar for a few dollars for a 8 oz. (250 ml) bottle, you can be sure that is commercial vinegar coloured with caramelized sugar. *see Note below
Only 3000 gallons (approximately 11,400 litres) of authentic balsamic vinegar is released annually; this should give you an idea how precious it is.
Balsamic vinegar was sold in pharmacies in the 15th century and used often to disinfect and heal deep cuts derived from swords.
It is made like no other vinegar. The juice of sweet Trebbiano di Romagna grapes grown around Modena is first boiled and then infused with “mother vinegar” from old reserves to start the acidification process.
Then the liquid is aged in chestnut, cherry, ash and mulberry casks, the order of which changes each establishment. Compensation for evaporation occurs by employing smaller barrels for each consecutive year, i.e. the first year aging occurs in a 50 litre cask, the 2nd in 45 litre etc.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizinole di Modena must be aged for a minimum of 12 years and Aceto Balsamico Tradizional di Modena Extra Vecchio for 25. It is a rich-tasting, dark, smooth, perfumey, almost syrupy textured and deeply flavoured vinegar that can be used to provide extra flavour to roasted vegetables, roasts and even used on strawberries in season to render them heavenly.
A 8 oz (250 ml) would cost pending on location $ 150.- (2002) and extra vecchio double that.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu * [Note from Chef James: Not to in any way disparage "Aceto Balsamico Tradizinale di Modena", but I have seen this “all or nothing” fact stated before, even by a very well known West Coast food critic (who said that any Balsamic Vinegar that wasn’t Aceto Balsamico Tradizinale di Modena was the equivalent of the powdered drink ‘Tang) . This is like saying there is nothing between a $5 bottle of sparkling wine and a $200 bottle of a vintage French Champagne . Of course we all know that there are Champagnes and sparkling wines (from France and elsewhere), many of them excellent, that are available in between $5 and $200. There are also many Balsamic Vinegars from Modena, (and other areas of Italy) that are 2 to 12 years old that range in price from about $10 to $75 for an 8 oz bottle, and some are excellent – they may not be “Aceto Balsamico Tradizinale di Modena ”, but they are not just commercial vinegars colored with caramelized sugar ].