Saturday, June 4, 2016


I’VE got a magic ingredient right in the pantry. A few drops of this special essence works magic in sauces, stews, and salads. It turns hum-drum dishes into snappy, gourmet creations. It gives foods zing, it makes them sing.

What is it? Vinegar! Yes, regular vinegar like you use on everyday salads, plus special vinegars, those made with varietal wines, cask-aged or flavored with fruit or herbs.

A palate of vinegars--from the left, sweet Málaga wine vinegar, Sherry vinegar, raspberry "balsamic," white wine vinegar, and Pedro Ximenez (also Sherry) vinegar. Missing from the pantry is red wine vinegar.

Vinegar is produced by the action of acetic bacteria, which consume the alcohol (in wine, cider, beer, honey, rice lees, fruit juice) and transform it into acetic acid.  (The word vinegar derives from “vin aigre”, meaning “sour wine.”)

Sometimes acetification happens during the making of wine, in which case, it is a serious defect. However, the ancients knew that this soured wine was a potent preservative, for the high acidity prevents spoilage of foods. They also knew vinegar as a useful condiment. From both the need to preserve food and to season it derive all the various pickles, relishes, chutneys and sambals which liven up meals the world over.

Commercial wine vinegar is made in industrial-scale vats, producing a sharp vinegar with little depth of flavor, in only a few days. 

But in wine regions such as Jerez (Sherry), vinegar is produced by allowing the base wine, made from Sherry grapes, to acidify and mature slowly in the solera system of stacked oak barrels. The most mature vinegar is drawn off from the bottom row of casks—the solera (from suelo, floor).

Cask-aged vinegar has depth of flavor and color as well as acidity. The ones made from sweet wines, such as Málaga and Pedro Ximenez, are sweet as well as tangy.
As the wine slowly turns to vinegar, it takes on a mellow, rounded flavor, giving Sherry vinegar its special appeal. It has higher acidity (7 percent or up to 8 percent for aged reserva vinegar) than industrial wine vinegar (6 percent), so a little goes a long way. Most Sherry vinegar is produced from the Palomino grape (the same variety used for fino Sherry). That made from the Pedro Ximenez grape produces a semi-sweet vinegar. Sherry vinegar has its own protected denominación de origen, Vinagre de Jerez.

Other wine regions have specialty vinegars also, such as red wine vinegar from the Rioja and single varietal vinegars such as Garnacha red wine vinegar.

Other vinegars to be found on the shelf in the supermarket are cider, white, malt, rice and balsamic. Real balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, Italy, and is fermented from the boiled must of the white Trebbiano de Spagna grape. It is aged in wood casks from 10 to 100 years. However, most of what is sold as balsamic are industrial copies, colored with caramel (sugar) and never aged in wooden barrels. (I never use it.)

Store vinegar in a cool, dark place. Good ones should be purchased in glass bottles, not plastic. In the kitchen, use only glass, enamel and stainless steel when cooking with vinegar. Don't use vinegar with aluminum, copper, zinc or cast-iron, as the acid reacts with those metals.

Sherry vinegar adds tang to sauce for pork chops with apricots.

Vinegar tips:
  • For flakier pie crust, add a teaspoon of vinegar to the pastry dough.
  • To enhance the sweetness of strawberries: macerate sliced berries with sugar and a spoonful of vinegar.
  • Add a few drops of vinegar to meringue to stabilize it.
  • Use vinegar to de-glaze a pan after sautéing and you create "instant" sauce. Chicken breast, liver, fish, steak, all taste better with a shot of vinegar. This is a good way to use herb or fruit vinegar too.
  • Use vinegar when food needs a flavor boost, such as in salt-free cookery.
  • Add six tablespoons of vinegar to water when making fish stock or chicken broth. Vinegar enhances the stock's flavor.
  • Use a few drops of vinegar in rinse water to get sparkling glassware.

 Chile Vinegar

This recipe was given to me by the late Don Mauricio González Gordon, Marques of Bonanza, who headed the Sherry house Gonzalez Byass (makers of Tio Pepe). One good way to use chile vinegar, Don Mauricio told me, is to add it to lentil stew right before serving.

Pack a small flask with chile peppers, stems removed. Add Sherry vinegar to fill the flask. Stopper tightly. Let set at least one week. Use as required, topping up the bottle with vinegar as needed. 

Pork Chops With Apricot-Vinegar Sauce

Fruit balances vinegar's tang in this savory sauce for pork chops.

In olden times, when vinegar was an essential preservative, the sourness of vinegary foods was balanced with sweet fruit and honey. Thus, sweet and sour tastes have long been part of traditional cooking. 

Ibérico pork chops, marbled with fat.
I used ibérico pork chops for this recipe. Marbled with fat, they are exceptionally juicy.

    4 thick-cut loin pork chops
    Salt and pepper
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    4-6 firm-ripe apricots, halved
    2 tablespoons minced onion
    1 clove minced garlic
    ¼ cup apricot jam
    1/3 cup Sherry or Pedro Ximenez vinegar
    1/3 cup water
    Sprig rosemary or thyme

Sprinkle the chops with salt and pepper and allow to stand 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a skillet and sear the apricots, cut-side down, about 1 minute. Turn and sear reverse side. Remove them and set aside.

Simmer chops with apricots and vinegar.
Sear the pork chops on both sides and remove. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat.  Add the minced onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until softened and beginning to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the apricot jam, vinegar, water, salt and pepper, rosemary or thyme. Stir to combine.

Return the pork chops and apricots to the pan and cook until pork is cooked, turning them once, about 5 minutes, depending on thickness.

Tender pork with a sweet and sour sauce.


Mix vinaigrette in a jar--easy to shake it up. Use best extra virgin olive oil and Sherry vinegar.

Vinaigrette sauce is a marvelous addition to many dishes. For instance: spoon it over grilled fish immediately before serving. Combine it with green beans, artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, boiled potatoes, beets, cooked leeks. Toss with cooked prawns and sliced avocado. Add to cooked and drained beans or lentils for instant seasoning. Stir into hot pasta and add grated cheese. Use vinaigrette for both marinade and basting sauce for foods on the grill.

Additions to the basic vinaigrette: fresh herbs (parsley, chives, tarragon, dill, basil, etc.), chopped hard-cooked eggs, cumin or caraway seeds, chopped scallions, pimentón (paprika), minced anchovies, blue cheese, toasted sunflower seeds.

Makes about 1 cup vinaigrette.

    4 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
    1 teaspoon Dijon or whole-grain mustard
    1 teaspoon salt
    Freshly ground black pepper
    1 clove crushed garlic (optional)
    2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
    Herbs, as desired

In a clean jar stir together the vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and garlic, if using. Whisk in the olive oil. Cover with lid. Keeps in a cool place for several days.

Shake the jar well before using the dressing.

Cauliflower Vinaigrette
Coliflor a la Vinagreta

Cauliflower marinates in a tangy vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette makes a tasty dressing for cooked vegetables. Those such as cauliflower and roasted eggplant can be marinated for hours. However, don’t add vinaigrette to green vegetables such as beans or broccoli until immediately before serving, as the vinegar leaches out the bright green color.

Serve the cauliflower as a side dish (great with foods from the grill) or toss it with salad greens.

4 cups cauliflower flowerettes (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup vinaigrette (recipe above)
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon roasted pumpkin seeds
Smoked pimentón (paprika)
Salad greens to serve

Bring a pan of water to a boil with vinegar and salt. Add the cauliflower and cook to desired doneness, crisp-tender takes about 6 minutes. Drain and refresh with cold water. Drain well.

Place the cauliflower in a bowl and add the vinaigrette. Combine well. Allow to marinate at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours. Add the chives, parsley and pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle with pimentón and serve with salad greens.

Marinated cauliflower makes a good side dish.

For more recipes with vinegar, see the following posts:

Apricots are in season! They inspired the recipe for pork chops.


  1. Thank you for the article, it is very interesting. I just returned from several weeks in Spain, back to Provence, with lots of different sherry vinegars in the trunk.
    I am planning to make Quails Escabeche and thought of making them packed in glass jars and cooked in the pressure cooker.
    Do you have any advice?

    1. Leif: I included a link to a post with a recipe for quail in escabeche. After marinating and cooking, it keeps in the refrigerator. However, I don't have any experience with actual preserving of meat or poultry for longer keeping. In bygone days, the quail or partridge were cooked in a strong vinegar marinade, packed in earthenware jars with enough olive oil to completely seal from the air. The game birds were kept during the cold months of the year.

  2. I had some BBQ shredded pork left over, so I put a bit of apple cider vinegar in with it when I microwaved it (for a sandwich). This worked great, keeping the BBQ from getting too dry and drawing out some of the smoky flavor.

    1. David: An excellent suggestion--vinegar is magic!

  3. I just thought that vinegar is just for medicine/health. But I've forgot that vinegar is acetic acid that can presevere the food. You change my mind about using vinegar as magic for food. Thanks