Vinegar. It gets some bad press, particularly in association with the inglorious end of the wine spectrum. But its acidity is often a neglected component in cooking. In the right quantity, it can sharpen and highlight flavours, and refreshes the palate when you're eating earthy, fatty or rich food - an important part of creating balance in a meal is to complement fats with a contrast.
A salad, for example, with a light coating of vinaigrette can provide such a contrast. When well balanced, the olive oil, salt and vinegar become harmonious and dance in the mouth, whereas oil and salt by themselves would be relatively bland.
A touch of vinegar added to a rich dish adds a welcome piquancy. Eggplant braised in olive oil and spices, for instance, is lifted by a dash of vinegar added at the end of cooking. Flavours sharpen and come alive. It's worth keeping in mind when you think a dish is missing something: instead of reaching for the salt, add a few drops of vinegar to give another dimension.
Of course, the quality of the vinegar is critical. Industrial white vinegar adds nothing to a dish other than acid (I find it very good for cleaning my floor). It wasn't so long ago that a typical Australian household only knew white or malt (made from beer) vinegar. Today we have an amazing range of vinegars: Sherry, balsamic, apple cider, malt and Champagne, plus Asian versions such as coconut, sake and rice, just for starters.
Verjuice, made from the pressing of unripe grapes, is sour but not as acidic as vinegar. It makes a milder alternative in a salad dressing, and is good for deglazing the pan after cooking meat. Verjuice gives a lovely flavour and piquancy without being overpowering.
Vinegar is made from fermented alcohol, usually wine (the word, in fact, comes from the French "vin aigre", meaning sour wine), or other liquid containing sugars or starches such as fruit or rice. The liquid is exposed to oxygen, allowing the growth of aerobic bacteria, typically Acetobacter aceti. Often a live vinegar culture, or "mother", is used to start the process.
I know of a winemaker who makes his own vinegar. He simply adds wine to an oak barrel that originally had a vinegar mother added; now the natural bacteria present in the wood start the process. Once the wine has turned to vinegar, it is aged in bottles, which increases the complexity and softens and deepens the flavour.
Perhaps the most complex vinegar is balsamic, a traditional, artisan-made vinegar in its authentic form. True balsamic comes from the town of Modena and is made from the must of trebbiano and lambrusco grapes. The must is simmered until it reaches a certain concentration before being strained and aged in a series of barrels of decreasing size, usually for 12 to 25 years, though sometimes for many more decades. As it ages, the vinegar becomes dark, syrupy and intensely flavoured, with a delicate balance of sweetness and light acidity. Use it to marinate fresh strawberries or drizzle it over grilled meats. It also works used judiciously in salad dressings.
Pedro Ximénez vinegar has a distinctive sweetness from the Pedro Ximénez grapes, which are pressed when very ripe. This also works well drizzled over grilled meats.
When it comes to meat, vinegar goes particularly well with pork. Try ribs cooked slowly with malt or red wine vinegar, along with spices and tinned tomatoes.
I'm often asked if there's a correct proportion of oil and vinegar in a salad dressing. This depends on people's taste, of course, and the strength and flavour of the vinegar, but a good rule of thumb is around a quarter to a third of vinegar to olive oil.
It is important to note that wine and vinegar do not like each other. Any acid will clash with wine, which is something to consider when serving food that should complement wine. It's one instance when it's best to keep the level of vinegar to a minimum.
So while you may think of vinegar simply as a component to a salad dressing, it is in fact very versatile, enlivening many a dish. Tonight I'm cooking a lovely Abruzzese recipe of pork braised with fennel, chilli, wine and tomato where a touch of red wine vinegar at the end of the cooking time gives the whole dish a beautiful lift and sharpens the flavours. Give it a try. Enjoy.