A Tart Splash Of Vinegar Isn't Just for Salad

From cocktails to folk remedies, it can be used throughout the kitchen.
Strawberry bourbon shrub cocktail. (Photo: Claire Brosman/Flickr)
Aug 24, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

The newest magic elixir is among the world’s oldest. I’m talking vinegar here, touted online and in actual, physical books as a miracle cure for everything from athlete’s foot and bee stings to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

What we tend to think of as an inexpensive kitchen staple has been swathed in lore and legend for millennia. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates advised using vinegar concoctions to treat fractures, “injuries of the head,” and more. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) wrote in The Natural History that Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in vinegar and offered it up to Mark Antony as an aphrodisiac.

Vinegar-based drinks can be found in cultures from China to Britain, according to the lively, learned Ultimate History Project. Two that have had a resurgence are shrubs and switchel—both time-honored thirst-slaking tonics with roots in the Old World.

“But it was in America, where summers can be sweltering, that the switchel or haymaker’s drink truly came into its own,” notes The Ultimate History Project. “Throughout the eighteenth century and on through the nineteenth century, switchels or shrubs, their fruit- or vegetable-based cousins, could be found in places ranging from the rolling countryside of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the blistering sun-swept prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s De Smet homestead.”

I wonder what our third president or Laura and her Almanzo would make of switchel’s current hipster manifestation. Frankly, all the au courant artisanal marketing (reclaimed furniture and hanging Edison bulbs optional) makes me crave something mass-produced and bad for me, like a Coke.

I feel more kindly toward shrubs, mainly because they’re an excellent reason to bust loose at the local berry stand. Michael Dietsch, author of 2014’s Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, is a proponent of the cold-process method of shrub making; instead of cooking a fruity simple syrup on the stovetop, he macerates fresh fruit in sugar. Over the course of a few hours (or days), the sugar slowly draws the juices out of the fruit and yields a syrup, which is then strained and mixed with red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar.

The cold process may take more than making a cooked-fruit syrup, but as Dietsch wrote in a piece for Serious Eats, the flavor is “purer and brighter.” That’s just the starting point, because shrubs change and mellow as they age, according to Dietsch. “And I mean, they mellow a lot. The tartness and sweetness both remain, but they start to harmonize after just a few weeks in the fridge. So what you have is a lightly sweet and tart syrup with a rich fruit flavor,” he wrote. “Pair a small amount of shrub (about half an ounce) with 2 ounces of vermouth or sherry. Top that with some seltzer or club soda, and you have a light and lovely treat. And it's so low in alcohol, you have two! Or three. I won’t tell.” Neither will I.

Just in case you were wondering, the word vinegar comes from the French term vin aigre, or “sour wine.” In a fascinating 2006 study on the medicinal uses and antiglycemic effect of vinegar, Carol S. Johnston, associate director of the nutrition program at Arizona State University, explained that it can be made from a great variety of fermentable carbohydrates, including wine, molasses, dates, sorghum, apples, pears, grapes, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains, and whey. “Initially yeasts ferment the natural food sugars to alcohol. Next, acetic bacteria (Acetobacter) convert the alcohol to acetic acid. Commercial vinegar is produced by either fast or slow fermentation processes.”

Slow fermentation is typically used for traditional wine vinegars. “The longer fermentation period allows for the accumulation of a nontoxic slime composed of yeast and acetic acid bacteria, known as the mother of vinegar.”

You can make vinegar at home by adding a small amount of vinegar containing the mother to wine or another alcoholic liquid to kick-start the reaction. There are any number of how-to sources online; one engaging example is Vinegar Connoisseurs International.

As to why you’d want to make your own? Well, the lack of good-quality red wine vinegars available at market today is reason enough. (That said, a very good one is from Kimberley Wine Vinegars, made in California; check the website for sources near you.) “Commercial manufacturers make it much too quickly and on the cheap,” wrote Paula Wolfert for Food & Wine.

“So why is homemade vinegar so special? Its taste,” she continued. “It’s crisper, more subtle and better balanced than the acidic one-note versions you can buy, with a sparkling quality that enhances food. Used in a sauce or simply for deglazing a sauté pan, it coaxes out layers of flavor. Furthermore, homemade red wine vinegar creates superior salad dressings: I often marinate finely chopped shallots in it for 15 minutes, then add extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper for a superb vinaigrette.”

Use the same fruity red wine for making vinegar that you enjoy drinking, Wolfert counseled—a tip she shared from the person from whom she received her first mother. Another source she mentions is a mother from Northampton Beer & Winemaking Supplies, in Northampton, Massachusetts, a store that sells mother of vinegar in malt, cider, red wine, and white wine varieties. I want one of each.

Depending on what they’re made from and how they’re made, vinegars run the gamut from sharp to sweet and high acid to low acid. A sharp, high-acid vinegar ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 percent acidity, and a low-acid vinegar runs around 4 percent. (Cook’s note: Using a low-acid vinegar, such as plain, unseasoned rice vinegar, makes for a gentle vinaigrette—perfect for tender butterhead lettuces.)

Flavoring store-bought Champagne or white wine vinegar with herbs is an easy waste-not-want-not way to preserve that bumper crop you have flourishing in the garden or a pot on the windowsill. Almost any herb will do, but it’s fair to say that French tarragon makes the most versatile herbal vinegar. It’s wonderful in vinaigrettes and quick pan sauces for seafood. Just a drizzle adds brightness and complexity to cooked lentils or white beans, boiled new potatoes, grilled chicken or fish, or tuna or chicken salad.

In The New American Herbal, Stephen Orr suggests using about one cup of loosely packed fresh herbs to two cups vinegar. Put the herbs in a clean glass canning jar or a ceramic crock with a tight lid; then pour in the vinegar. Put the jar in a cool, dark place for three to four weeks. Then insert a few freshly cut herb sprigs into clean glass bottles with stoppers with the handle of a wooden spoon, and decant the vinegar into the bottles.

But wait, you’re thinking, what about cider vinegar? That’s what is garnering much of the attention these days, especially in its unfiltered, unpasteurized form. Referred to as ACV by those in the know, it’s viewed as a weight loss aid, key to longevity (although China’s oldest woman, who died at 117 in 2014, swore by her homemade rice vinegar), and, as one website excitedly puts it, a way of “balancing your entire inner body system.” If you’re looking for a boost from vitamins, minerals, or pectin, then forget the vinegar. Go eat an apple instead. But if you’re on a quest for the best potato salad ever, then toss just boiled spuds with the stuff—the unfiltered kind is especially fresh tasting and well rounded—before adding a creamy dressing. It’s a true stealth ingredient—its tartness penetrates the hot potatoes, giving the salad an overall brightness and complexity. And that’s enough for me.