Laura Dean Bennett
The name we know it by came from the French, who called it “vin aigre” or sour wine.
But vinegar was in use long before the French named it.
As one of the oldest fermentation processes, it has been around for more than 10,000 years.
Imagine the joy someone must have felt when they realized that a cask of wine, which was “on the turn,” need not go to waste.
In every ancient culture, it was valued as a medicine, a disinfectant and for food and drink.
It was also used as a food preservative and as a condiment flavored with herbs and spices and, some say, on the skin, as a beauty treatment by ancient women.
The first vinegars were most likely made from wine.
By 5000 BC, the Babylonians were making it from date palm wine and Egyptians from barley wine.
For thousands of years, vinegar has also been made from molasses, sorghum, fruits, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, rice, beets, malt, whey and many kinds of grain.
But the process was always the same – fermentation of natural sugars to alcohol and further fermentation to vinegar.
Ancient Romans diluted vinegar with water and drank it as an inexpensive, non-alcoholic beverage called posca.
Legionnaires commonly carried it with them to foreign lands, and it was a favorite drink in the towns in many Roman territories.
In Europe in the 1300s a drink called “plague vinegar” was consumed in the hope of preventing the Black Death.
In the 1800s, when cholera was known to be transmitted by food, vinegar was used to wash hands and to rinse fruits and vegetables to stop the spread of the disease.
Women were known to sniff vinegar to treat a headache or be revived by it after fainting from the effects of a tight corset.
From the early days of this country, up through World War I, it was used to treat wounds and toothaches.
Vinegar was a popular ingredient in all kinds of medicinal remedies, ointments, syrups and gargles.
It can remove the residue left behind by soaps and shampoos.
Vinegar being a natural anti-fungal and an antiseptic, it can sometimes help treat acne, itchy skin conditions and sunburn – but vinegar can be caustic, so care must be taken to dilute it with water before using in on delicate skin.
Of course, vinegar has always been invaluable to cooks.
It has pickled vegetables, enhanced sauces, marinated meats and been indispensable in salad dressings for hundreds of years.
These days, wise cooks know there’s a special vinegar for every situation.
A tour along the vinegar shelves at the supermarket will show you that the old standbys – white distilled, cider, wine and malt vinegar are now sharing space with balsamic, rice, rice wine, raspberry, pineapple, chardonnay, flavored and seasoned vinegars of all kinds.
Distilled white vinegar is the kind that most often comes to mind when one says the word vinegar.
It’s found in everyone’s kitchen pantry and laundry room.
This sharp, strong-tasting vinegar is made from grain-based ethanol, converted to acetic acid and diluted to 5% acidity with water.
It’s inexpensive to make, which makes it popular for use in commercial production of salad dressings and condiments.
It’s invaluable in the kitchen – there are countless ways to use it in cooking.
Distilled white vinegar requires no special storage.
It will just about keep forever.
Apple cider vinegar is also familiar to most people.
Made from pressed apples fermented into alcohol before turning into vinegar, it has a mildly sweet flavor with a tart aftertaste.
Many cooks wouldn’t make pickles without it.
Lately, it’s gotten a lot of attention as a natural remedy.
Many folks tout apple cider vinegar for its usefulness for stomach problems, treating a cold, and its effectiveness as a weight-loss supplement.
Like almost all flavored vinegars, if it’s kept in a closed container in a dark, cool pantry shelf, it will keep indefinitely.
When in doubt about using any cooking vinegar that’s been kept a long time, just give it a sniff to be sure it smells right.
Balsamic vinegar is a dark, sometimes syrupy Italian classic with a distinct flavor.
Not made from a fermented alcohol like other vinegars, it begins as pressed grape juice aged in oak barrels, which gradually thickens.
There are inexpensive versions on the market, but be careful – some are just white vinegar and food coloring.
Balsamic vinegar is perfect as a glaze for meat, for sprinkling onto fresh fruits or fish, blending into sauces or gravies or, mixed with a good quality olive oil to make a wonderful salad dressing.
Malt vinegar is made from fermented barley, which is brewed into beer before being fermented into vinegar.
It then undergoes an aging process, giving it a distinctive flavor.
Many of us were first introduced to malt vinegar when we first tried fish and chips, and for that dish, it’s the perfect accompaniment.
It has a deep amber color and a distinct flavor that many find too strong for salads.
But try it in potato salads, pickles, chutneys or grilling sauces.
Red wine vinegar is one of the most popular vinegars in the United States.
It’s made from any variety of fermented red wine, each variety giving its vinegar a unique taste. The tangy, sharp flavor makes it perfect for vinaigrettes and marinades.
White wine vinegar is made by fermenting white wine, of course.
But, instead of the bite of red wine vinegar, it has a milder, softer, more versatile flavor. It can be used for everything from making pickles to salad dressings.
Many cooks find it the perfect vinegar for coleslaw.
Champagne vinegar is even lighter than white wine vinegar.
It’s produced by the same process as white vinegar and apple cider vinegar and its flavor is reminiscent of champagne, as it is made using the same type of grapes.
When mixed with a lightly favored oil, it makes a nice salad dressing and when mixed with herbs and spices is a fantastic marinade for vegetables or chicken.
Herb vinegars are flavored with fresh herbs. Popular herbal vinegars contain tarragon, basil, oregano, chives, rosemary, fennel or a mix of herbs.
They are vibrantly flavorful, making them especially nice for sprinkling directly on vegetables, fish, seafood, or using as marinades.
Try splashing a little herb vinegar over freshly steamed vegetables for a new taste sensation and to reduce the need for salt.
Many cooks make their own homemade herb vinegars.
Rice vinegar is made by fermenting rice wine, which is usually from China or Japan.
It’s less acidic than the other types of vinegar, so it’s less harsh and has a sweeter taste.
Rice vinegar is generally found in soy-based dipping sauces.
A splash added to marinades, dressings, rice and vegetable dishes or a noodle stir-fry provides a little something extra.
But, you don’t have to be a cook to find uses for vinegar.
Here are just a few handy “vinegar household tips:”
Get the smell of fish or onion off of your hands in no time flat.
Make rice fluffy by adding 1 tsp. of vinegar to the cooking water.
Clean computer keyboards, phone keypads and other office equipment with a cotton swab or soft cloth dampened with a solution of equal parts vinegar and water. Always be sure the equipment is shut off and wipe gently – never spray.
Clean glassware to a sparkly shine with a little vinegar mixed with water. The same goes for windows.
Rub stained coffee cups with salt dampened slightly with vinegar.
Stainless steel sinks will shine after being rubbed with a sponge soaked in vinegar.
Remove odors from the fridge – use a sponge soaked in water and vinegar to wipe out the fridge. If necessary, place a bowl of warm vinegar in the fridge, wait until the vinegar cools completely.
Dishwashers also like a vinegar treatment. Occasionally run it empty, adding 2 cups of vinegar.
Vinegar is a natural de-greaser. Rinse greasy cookware with it and wipe range top or oven with vinegar for easier cleanup.
Ants hate vinegar – wipe counters, cabinets and floors with equal parts vinegar and water to deter the little pests.
Remove stubborn rings made by wet glasses on wood furniture. Rub with a mixture of equal parts olive oil and white vinegar. Rub with the grain, then polish.
Cut flowers will stay fresh longer if you add 2 Tbsp. of vinegar plus 3 Tbsp. of sugar to each quart of warm water in the vase.
To remove smoky odors from clothes, fill a tub with hot water, add 1 cup white vinegar and soak the clothes for an hour. Remove and launder as usual.
For weed or grass killer – mix 1/2 cup salt with 1 gallon of vinegar and add a couple of squirts of dawn dish detergent. Sprinkle heavily on the problem area. This will kill weeds and grass in less than two hours, and it’s safe for kids and pets.
And…to kill grass invading sidewalks and driveways, use full strength vinegar.
What more do you need to know?