“A condiment can be a thing of beauty.” Chef and author Cúán Greene guides us through the wonderful world of vinegars.
If, like me, you have an affinity for flavour, your cabinets will have suffered (or indeed prospered, depending on your perspective) from a condiment addiction. Like a gambling addict in Las Vegas, those with flavour addictions appear to be losing an uphill battle against their urge to avoid each and every condiment on the shelf (which in 2022 are numerous). These days, it’s somewhat alarming to navigate the aisle of a supermarket – wading your way through a plethora of exotic sauces, condiments, and preserves, to ultimately lay paws on a bottled cocktail you had no intention of purchasing when you set out on this shopping outing. Later, on returning home, the inevitable disappointment sets in as you sample said purchase and the bottle is relegated to the depths of a cupboard, never to be seen or tasted again.
All that said, a condiment can be a thing of beauty. Many have lasted the test of time; after all it is the compelling taste and ability to enhance any dish that caused this addiction in the first place. And so today’s article is dedicated to the element at the heart of the success of most condiments. No, this accolade does not go to Mr. Henry Heinz, nor Antoine Maille, founders of the world’s best selling ketchup and mustard respectively. The real champion is not a person, but an ingredient. Of course you’ve probably guessed by now, the true success of these condiments is in fact the imperishable vinegar, a vastly overlooked ingredient which in fact, came about by mistake.
A note to the reader. The true reason I wanted to write this article was to give you some insights into how special vinegar can really be. When I’m thinking of an article, I selfishly think what am I interested in? What can I write and research that will not only be useful and helpful to you, but will also help me in the long run? This article addresses these quite selfish notions. Onwards.
Beyond the two euro balsamic found on the shelf, or the bang average bottle of brown ‘trend sauce’ that awkwardly gloops from bottle to plate, is a whole world of phenomenal vinegars that over the years have contributed to so many of my dishes. While I have a handful of go-tos that I am partial to, I’m always in pursuit of more. Every region, every country, each territory has its own method of producing vinegar; some better than others for sure, many with unique defining characteristics. Vinegar is a complex ingredient that is vital to many of the world’s most celebrated dishes. It’s worth seeking out and celebrating.
To that end, I have included a directory of my favourite vinegars along with this article, graded by ingredient, ageing and fermentation method, where they can be sourced, and of course the best ways to use them. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reaching out to my food network, a group of chefs and culinary heads, who have generously shared with me their favourites. I hope my research can teach you something new, help us both select the right vinegar for the right task, and bring our cooking up a notch – as well as help you to sift through the overwhelming amount of “acid” that floods the market today.
Ok, so a little theory to give us some understanding on what exactly separates the good from the bad. To begin, the hardest part is leaving perfectly good wine open and exposed to the elements. If one morning, you wake to realise that in your drunken state you left the guts of a bottle of wine un-consumed last night, well then, the process has already begun. Vinegar is created by the oxidation of alcohol (not just wine), which exposes it to acidobacteria. This process was discovered long ago when barrelled wine failed the long voyages it was subjected to – the valuable alcohol converting to what was thought to be useless acid (acetic acid). Leave a bottle of wine ajar for long enough, and the alcohol will turn to acetic acid, converting into vinegar. That’s the very quick and easy understanding of vinegar anyway.
Tim Davies, my long time friend and current sous chef at Two Michelin Star restaurant Kadeau in Copenhagen says, “I’m a big fan of all kinds of vinegars, and saying I have a favourite is hard because it really depends on the application. I love the depth you get from aged ones and the pure acidity you get from young cider vinegar, and I like the Swedish Eddike brand too [“eddike” is vinegar in Swedish and Danish]. Truest depends on what you need from it but I guess that’s the beauty of them.”
I met Tim when we were both working in Denmark as young trainees. At that time up North, you were hard pressed to find a lemon in a professional kitchen, as all forms of acidity were attained by way of vinegar or fermentation. Many of the vinegars used were infused renditions of apple cider, made in house, and often matured over a number of years in a variety of casks and vessels. This included fennel, rose, elderflower, cherry blossom, blackcurrant, pine — typically ingredients found throughout the landscape, stored in bottles, jars, clay crocks, oak and cedar casks. Over time, the vinegar would mature, and it was really incredible to discover a bottle that you may have made years previously, now developed, with an entirely new taste profile, colour, balance, and therefore new culinary uses. I became heavily interested in vinegar, and today it’s still my first point of call when introducing acidity to my cooking. All this being said, I find lemon to be a wonderful thing, and I am beginning to rediscover citrus. Just like vinegar though, I feel both have been subject to overuse, and as a consequence are both under-appreciated. Rather than neglect citrus, I want to source them at their seasonal best (during Europe’s winter) and celebrate their nuances just like vinegar.
The best quality vinegars (like perhaps all things) are a result of love, time and knowledge. By now we know vinegar starts with alcohol, made from the carefully selected grain, fruit, or vegetables like potatoes. In the guide I’ve included, you’ll see that a great deal of attention is placed on the lifecycle of the product; from selection of ingredient, fermentation, yeast, to ageing method. Collectively this is what defines quality, what differentiates the good stuff from the very ordinary, which is what many of us unthinkingly reach for day-to-day.
If we compare traditional and commercial methods of making vinegar, traditionally alcohol is produced by slow fermentation. For example, in Japan, sake is made by fermenting rice with koji. It is only then that the vinegar is produced using this sake. Today, the best vinegar producers continue to use this method, producing their own sake on premises. However they make up only a very small percentage of total vinegars now coming from Japan. When we factor in ageing, this entire process can take anywhere between 1-25 years. In contrast, the modern method is to oxygenate huge vats of acetobacter-inoculated young wine as it’s fermenting to produce a final mixture that is between 15 – 20% acetic acid. That mixture is then diluted with water to reach a 5% acidity. Commercial vinegar producers buy this wine rather than slowly ferment their own. The result is a product that contains little character, and who’s only comparison with its superior counterpart is the name on the bottle. What’s more, it can be produced in a single day.
Thanks for joining me on a journey through the acidic world of vinegar – I hope this will help you navigate supermarket aisles and guide your online journeys. We’re lucky to have some incredible local producers here in Ireland, and as always it’s so worth seeking out your own nearby makers wherever you are in the world.
Irish vinegars to note:
Con Trass Apple Cider Vinegar from Tipperary, available from Sheridan’s, €8.90;
Highbank Orchard Organic Apple Cider Vinegar with Mother from Kilkenny, €6.50-€11
Words: Cúán Greene
Cúán Greene is a chef and author of the Ómós Digest Newsletter. You can subscribe for weekly posts at omos.substack.com