We've all heard of or even used vinegar at one point in time, but do we really know that much about its composition? The Columbia Encyclopedia defines vinegar as a "...sour liquid consisting mainly of acetic acid and water, produced by the action of bacteria on dilute solutions of ethyl alcohol derived from previous yeast fermentation." In other words, it is a byproduct of either grapes, apples, malt or rice that is fermented with harmless bacteria that use oxygen to extract energy from the alcohol (oxidization), converting it into acetic acid- the main component of vinegar. The vinegar that is most commonly used contains approximately 4 to 8% acetic acid; the rest is water. However, natural vinegars also contain small amounts of tartaric acid, citric acid and other acids.
What is the origin of the word "vinegar"?
Vinegar has been used for centuries and is an important element of European, Asian and other cuisines.
The word "vinegar" is derived from the Old French vin aigre, which means "sour wine".
What are the different varieties of vinegar?
Here's a list of the most commonly known varieties and their common uses:
- Malt (cooking)- made by malting barley, causing the starch in the grain to turn to maltose. Then an ale is brewed from the maltose and allowed to turn into vinegar, which is then aged. Light brown in color. Used mostly for cooking (fish).
- Wine (cooking)- made from red or white wine and is often used in Mediterranean countries and Central Europe. More expensive varieties that are made from individual varieties of wine are Champagne, Sherry or Pinot Grigio.
- Apple Cider (cooking, health & beauty)- also known as cider vinegar, is made from cider or apple must (freshly pressed apple juice that contains the skin, seeds and stems) and is brownish-yellow in color. It is most often sold unfiltered and unpasteurized and is very popular due to it's perceived beneficial health and beauty properties.
- Fruit (cooking)- made from fruit wines. Common flavors are apple, black currant, raspberry, quince and tomato.
- Balsamic (cooking)- an aromatic, aged type of vinegar traditionally produced in Italy from the concentrated juices or must of white grapes. Its flavor is rich, sweet and complex and is very dark brown in color.
- Rice (cooking)- comes in "white" (light yellow), red, and black varieties and is used most commonly in East and Southeast Asian cuisines.
- Coconut (cooking)- made from fermented coconut water, is used primarily in Southeast Asian cuisine and is a cloudy white liquid, with a sharp, acidic taste.
- Palm (cooking)- made from fermented sap from flower clusters of the nipa palm, is used most commonly in the Phillipines, where it is made.
- Cane (cooking)- made from the juice of sugar cane, is very popular in the Philippines and ranges from dark yellow to golden brown in color and has a mellow flavor.
- Raisin (cooking)- is made from raisins and mostly used in cuisines of the Middle East, where it is produced. It has a mild flavor and is cloudy and medium brown in color.
- Date (cooking)- is made from dates and is a traditional product of the Middle East.
- Beer (cooking)- is made from beer and produced in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK). It has mostly a malty taste with some variation depending upon the type of beer that was used.
- Honey (cooking)- is rare, especially in the United States, but is produced in France, Italy and Spain.
- East Asian Black (cooking)- Chinese black vinegar is aged and made from millet, rice, sorghum, wheat or a combination of thereof and has an inky black color and a complex, malty flavor. A lighter form of black vinegar, made in Japan, is made from rice and is marketed as a health drink.
- Flavored vinegars (cooking)- are infused with either whole fruit, e.g., raspberries, blueberries or figs, or the flavorings derived from these fruits. Some exotic fruit-flavored vinegars include blood orange and pear. Herb vinegars are mostly flavored with Mediterranean herbs such as thyme or oregano. Sweetened vinegar is made from rice wine, sugar and herbs, e.g., ginger, cloves and other spices. Herb vinegars are of Cantonese origin.
- Kombucha (cooking)- is made from kombucha, a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria. It is primarily used to make a vinaigrette and is flavored by adding blackberries, blueberries, mint or strawberries at the onset of fermentation.
- Kiwifruit (cooking)- has been produced commercially in New Zealand since the early 1990's. It is produced from the waste in the form of misshapen or otherwise unacceptable fruit that often constitutes up to 30% of the crop.
- Distilled vinegar (cooking, preserving, cleaning, medicinal)- is any type of vinegar that has been distilled to produce a colorless solution of approximately 5%-8% acetic acid in water. This is what we know to be white vinegar, but is also known as "virgin vinegar" or a distilled spirit and is used for medicinal, laboratory, cleaning, as well as in cooking, baking, pickling and meat preserving. The most common starting material (due to its low cost) is malt vinegar.
- Spirit vinegar (cooking)- is usually a stronger variety made from sugar cane, that contains between 5 and 20% acetic acid.
- Sinamak (cooking)- is a variation of cane vinegar from the Philippines and is comprised of cane vinegar mixed with siling labuyo (a chili pepper), onions and garlic.
Does vinegar have to be refrigerated?
No. Due to the fermentation process, vinegar is resistant to spoilage and because of its acidic properties, it has an almost unlimited shelf-life.
When a funny mold-like growth forms inside a bottle of opened vinegar, does that mean it's gone bad and should be discarded?
No, this is called "mother of vinegar" which is naturally occurring, produced by harmless (acetic acid) bacteria and cellulose. If it bothers you, it can be filtered out by using a coffee filter, or used to start another bottle of vinegar. If you don't mind it, you can simply leave it in and ignore it!
What are the various uses of vinegar?
- Culinary: food preparation, pickling processes, salad dressings, including vinaigrettes. It is used as a condiment and is also an ingredient in sauces, e.g., mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise and marinades.
- Possible cholesterol effects- possibly lowers cholesterol and triacylglycerol levels; has been shown to lower blood pressure in rats, although the effect has not been tested on humans.
- Blood glucose control and Diabetes- small amounts of vinegar (about 2 tablespoons) added to food or taken along with a meal have been shown by numerous medical trials to reduce the glycemic index (GI) in people with and without diabetes.
- Diet control- several trials indicate that taking vinegar with food increases the feeling of fullness and thereby reduces the amount of food consumed.
- Infections- has been used to fight infections for centuries. My grandmother "prescribed" it for us as children for common colds and persistent coughs. I believe it works, but some studies have shown that it is not effective against infections, lice or warts (whether taken internally or used externally).
- Other medicinal uses- when applied to jellyfish stings, it deactivates the nematocysts (venomous cells unique to jellyfish, corals, sea anemones, etc.). However, the most effective treatment is putting the affected area(s) in hot water, because the venom is deactivated by heat.
- Cervical screening tool- diluted vinegar 3%-5% has been proven to be an effective tool in screening for cervical cancer. The vinegar changes the color of affected tissue to white, making diagnosis by inspection possible, which in turn, decreases the mortality rate by 35% in early detection.
- Potential hazards- there have been reports of injuries to the esophagus by the ingestion of apple cider vinegar tablets, due mainly to the fact that vinegar products that are sold for medicinal purposes are neither standardized nor regulated. This can be dangerous since they can vary widely in content and pH.
- White vinegar is often used as a green household cleaning product. Since it's acidic, it can dissolve mineral deposits from glass, coffee makers and other smooth surfaces. It also may be used as an eco-friendly urine cleaner for pets. For safety measures, it is recommended that vinegar be diluted with water .
- Malt vinegar is commonly used in the United Kingdom to clean grease-smeared windows and mirrors (vinegar is sprinkled on crumpled newspaper).
- Garden/Outdoor- herbicide (weedkiller)- the vinegar will kill top growth but perennial plants will regrow, since the acetic acid isn't absorbed into root systems. Caution: vinegar solutions above 10% need to be handled with care since they're damaging to the skin because of their corrosive properties.
So, as you can see, vinegar is extremely versatile and inexpensive green product to use in your home.
More posts to come on more specific ways to use vinegar in the home.