Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pantry Staples, Part I

In the first of what I am sure will be a riveting series, I am presenting what I consider to be pantry staples worth having around.

Pantry Staples - er, not those kind of staples...

Today, we will look at various vinegars and their uses in the kitchen.

These are the vinegars I regularly keep on hand. From the left: white vinegar, cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine (in this case, pinot grigio) vinegar, champagne vinegar, rice vinegar and balsamic vinegar.

Before we look at each vinegar and its uses, a word about some of the above. I heartily recommend getting the low or no sodium rice vinegar. I also usually have both a lesser quality (an 8 year old) balsamic vinegar for cooking as well as a better quality (a 25 year old) balsamic vinegar for finishing and vinaigrettes. Unfortunately, I seem to have neglected to replace my lesser quality balsamic vinegar. My rule of thumb is that the further from the table the balsamic vinegar is used, the lesser quality it needs to be. Note to self: buy more balsamic vinegar.

Now, on with the vinegars.

White vinegar is not only useful for non-caustic and environmentally-friendly household cleaning applications, but it is often used in cooking when one needs the acidity of a vinegar, but one does not desire an overpowering flavor.

Case in point. Once your household sponges begin to smell, they are positively overflowing with germs. This is either the time to toss them, or sanitize them. Place your sponges in a heat-proof bowl and pour in some white vinegar. Water can be added to achieve the desired liquid volume. Heat in the microwave for 1:30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly before handling. The acidity of the vinegar and the heat act together to kill all the evil micro-bug-wuggies.

Ah look. I got some more balsamic vinegar. Now, I don't know who is responsible, but I really want to slap him for confusing the issue here. It used to be a simple matter of picking a balsamic vinegar by the number of years it has been aged, as the older the vinegar, the more refined the taste, but now different brands have their own methods of "qualifying" the various qualities. One to four grape leaves, one to five stars? Come on. Give us a break. Just who do you think you are kidding here? I really have to wonder if this is a case of see how many different bottles of balsamic vinegar we can get the stupid consumer to buy before they get wise. Hello!! We aren't that stupid and we will remember that you seemed to believe that of us. Can you tell that I have spent far too much time trying to figure out what balsamic vinegar to buy once I got to the store?

Er, anyway: let's forget the money-grubbing idiots for a while.

And now, on to the vinegars:

Vinegars are used in cooking and baking; for making salad dressings, to transform milk into a buttermilk substitute, and in marinades. Which type of vinegar should you use?

· Balsamic vinegar is the most expensive because it is aged for a longer period of time. The longer it's aged, the sweeter and thicker it gets, and the more expensive too. Buy several different types of balsamic vinegar. Less expensive vinegars are used for marinades and salad dressings where there are lots of other ingredients. The really expensive balsamic vinegars are used to drizzle over cheese and greens as an appetizer, or as a garnish or finishing touch to many recipes. Hint: you would serve the expensive balsamic vinegar to people you really like or to people you are trying to impress.

· Red and white wine vinegars are more 'everyday' vinegars. They are good for salad dressings and marinades. Red wine vinegar is best used with heartier flavors and foods, like beef, pork, and vegetables. White wine vinegar is best for chicken and fish dishes. Champagne vinegar and white wine vinegars are light in color, so are good for dressing lighter foods like pale greens, chicken, and fish.

· Apple cider vinegar is mild and inexpensive; it's the one I use most often when making salad dressings. Since it is mild, it's a good choice for marinating fish or chicken. It's also good for making Flavored Vinegars.

· Rice vinegar is the mildest of all, with much less acidity than other vinegars. It's often used in Asian or Chinese cooking.

· Plain distilled vinegar is made from grain alcohol and has a very sharp, unpleasant taste. Use it in very small quantities; it's best to add a bit to milk to 'create' a buttermilk substitute, or for cleaning purposes.

· All vinegars should be stored tightly closed in a cool, dark place. They will last for about a year after opening; after that time, the flavors will diminish. Purchase expensive vinegars in very small quantities and be sure to use them within one year.

· Lemon and lime juices are acidic and can be substituted for red wine, white wine, apple cider, and rice wine vinegars. Don't use them in place of balsamic vinegar, because you won't get the same depth of flavor.


Sara said...

Good information here - I also keep sherry vinegar in the house. It's more tart than balsamic, but has a nice, complex flavor

Rosie Hawthorne said...

Thank you, Marilyn, for this information.

I have a problem with champagne vinegar. I checked out the price at Harris Teeter for maybe an 8 oz. bottle. About $15. I can buy a not bad bottle of champagne for $8. So I don't see buying champagne vinegar.
I'll just buy the champagne and add it along with some vinegar. Then drink the rest of the bottle of champagne. DUH!