You've been using vinegar to dress salads, put up pickles and, yes, even clean a few things around the kitchen.
Keep it up. But also consider that vinegar — cider, wine, sherry, balsamic, distilled — can be as important to a cook as salt and pepper, coming to the rescue when the many flavors of a dish refuse to play nice.
"Vinegar brings out the intrinsic nature of whatever you're cooking. ... You'll taste more of the other flavors," says cookbook author James Peterson. "When you're tasting and it appears that the flavors in a recipe are refusing to focus, a little vinegar will often do the trick.
"If your sauce is a little flat, a little vinegar sharpens it," adds Peterson, whose most recent book, "Done" (Chronicle Books, $27.50), joins his "Essentials of Cooking," among others. "When I'm making a brown sauce, I have vinegar right there next to me because I consider it one of the important components even though I use very little of it. You don't pour in a half a cup, but a teaspoon here and there."
David Lebovitz, the cookbook author whose latest book is "My Paris Kitchen" (Ten Speed Press, $35), believes in the teaspoon approach. "You don't really want to taste it in things. That's why a teaspoon is good because you can tell it's there if you tasted it before and after but not enough to say, 'Oh there's apple cider vinegar in the soup.'
"If I'm making a pie or a cobbler, I always put in a small shot of cider vinegar," says Lebovitz. "Not enough to taste it, but it adds sort of elusive back note.
"A lot of times when you add something that's the opposite, it tends to highlight the flavor," he adds, not unlike the trend of adding salt to things like chocolate.
Like mellow soup stocks to which Lebovitz adds vinegar. "It adds that background flavor to beef stock — any kind of stock actually — and it just dials it up."
Vinegar has been a kitchen staple for thousands of years. Not to get all science class, but vinegar can prompt all sorts of reactions in cooking. Add it to a mixture containing baking soda and it will bubble up. (That's how it leavens the Depression-era chocolate cake dubbed "wacky" or "funny.") It does serious work in marinades (helping seasonings penetrate meats, tenderizing tougher cuts). It balances flavors in barbecue sauces and baked beans. A tablespoon of vinegar (distilled perhaps) added to the liquid component of a pie crust slows the development of gluten's stretchy properties, producing a flaky crust. A vinegar pie's key ingredient: distilled vinegar.
Peterson considers sherry vinegar "my standby," but uses red wine vinegar in tomato sauces. "They are already acidic, but there are different kinds of acids that affect different parts of your mouth," he says. "The acid in tomatoes isn't exaggerated by adding vinegars, it's actually balanced."
"Our tongue wants everything enhanced," says one cook I know. Vinegar does just that, as these recipes prove.
Hot vinaigrette: Deglaze a saute pan with good-quality wine vinegar. Swirl in a small amount of extra-virgin olive oil to finish the sauce. Spoon over sauteed foods such as fish. Adapted from Peterson's "Essentials."
Grilled balsamic peaches: Halve and pit peaches. Dip cut sides in melted butter then light brown sugar. Arrange peaches cut side down on a medium-hot grilI and cook only until bottoms are caramelized and show grill marks (about 3 minutes). Serve lightly drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. Serve as Sheri Castle suggests in "The New Southern Garden Cookbook," with pound cake; with grilled pork or atop greens. Or, our suggestions: with ice cream or dollops of goat cheese.
Mint sauce: Put 1/2 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan. Heat until it boils and sugar dissolves. Place 3/4 to 1 cup minced fresh mint leaves in a heat proof cup or bowl. Pour hot sauce over; let stand at least 1 hour. Serve with grilled lamb. Adapted from the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook."
A few vinegars with a few thoughts from David Lebovitz:
Balsamic: Ranges from pricey (aged at least 12 years) to supermarket varieties. Splash a little on fresh fruit.
Cider: Made from apples. Use it when you "want a bit of fruity flavor."
Distilled: Also called white vinegar. Used in pickling and preserving.
Malt: Made from malted barley. Works with fish and chips.
Rice: Usually clear, but may be found in light or dark. May be seasoned.
Sherry: Lebovitz favors this in most salad dressings. "It's a bit milder than red wine vinegar, with a pleasant, woody smoothness."
Wine: Includes red and white. Red wine vinegar with its sharper acidity makes a more assertive dressing and "can also liven up a stew."BalsamicApple ciderRed wineWhite wineSherryRiceRaspberryDistilledMalt