Vinegars are enjoying high popularity at the moment. Here’s why they’re healthful.

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On Nutrition

While vinegar’s health benefits are greatly overblown, its culinary versatility makes it a useful tool for upping the deliciousness of nutritious, healthful foods. Vinegar is acidic, and acids make foods and drinks more mouthwatering — literally, since they stimulate the flow of saliva.

Vinegars have been seasoning food for 10,000 years, but they are enjoying high popularity at the moment — shrubs anyone? In his new book “Acid Trip,” food photographer and cookbook author Michael Harlan Turkell says, “Vinegar is used in baking, braising and even cocktail making and is essential to nearly every cuisine the world over, and yet despite it’s versatility and singular nature, this sour wine remains underappreciated and little understood.”

Commercial vinegar is produced either by a fast or a slow fermentation process. Slow methods, which take at least a few months, are generally used in traditional vinegars. Traditional balsamic vinegars (aceto balsamico tradizionale) from the Modena and Reggio Emilia areas of northern Italy age for a minimum of 12 years. The longer fermentation period allows for a culture of acetic acid bacteria, known as the “mother” of vinegar, to form in the wine or other source liquid. Fast methods take a shortcut by adding this bacterial culture directly, producing vinegar in one to three days.

I think the biggest health benefit of a quality vinegar is how it can facilitate the eating of more green salads. Most purchased vinaigrettes are a bit sad, made with inferior vinegars and soybean oil, which is extracted using chemical solvents. Why not make your own vinaigrette with quality ingredients that you can adjust to suit your mood and your taste buds? It keeps in the refrigerator for about a week. Good vinegars have a complex, authentic flavor that is pleasing in its own right but can really elevate even a simple salad. I’m still haunted by the delicious memory of a walnut Champagne vinegar I received a sample of several years ago.

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Vinegars keep for years at room temperature, so there’s no reason not to keep a variety on hand. Here are some of my standbys:

• Red and white wine vinegars are a good basic. They can range from pleasingly pungent to nothing special.

• Balsamic vinegar has a dark color, an intense sweet-sour taste and a distinctive aroma. It can be very expensive, or very cheap (beware of balsamic vinegars that contain caramel color and thickening agents), but there are many grades in between. I buy my “everyday” balsamic from Costco.

• White balsamic also comes from Italy, but it’s produced differently and is not aged for long. Along with its light color — which is useful if you don’t want your food to take on a dark tint — it has a lighter flavor.

• Apple cider vinegar is made from fermented apple cider. It’s faintly sweet, and less acidic than wine vinegar. I’ve also enjoyed some amazing pear cider vinegars.

• Rice vinegar, made from fermented rice, is also lightly sweet and less acidic than many vinegars. It’s used widely in Chinese and Japanese cuisines.

• Coconut vinegar is made from fermented coconut tree sap. It has a slightly sweet flavor and relatively low acidity. It’s nice in green papaya salads, or as a substitute for apple cider vinegar.

• Sherry vinegars come from Spain, and some are aged as long as 75 years. Very nice in a vinaigrette with walnut oil and Dijon mustard, and tossed over warm French green lentils.

Classic Vinaigrette

The classic proportions for vinaigrette are three parts oil to one part vinegar, but you can adjust that to taste. In fact, many modern vinaigrettes are closer to two parts oil, one part vinegar. Whatever ratio you choose, add salt and pepper to taste, and a bit of Dijon mustard if you desire. Simply whisk the ingredients or shake them in a jar.

I usually use extra virgin olive oil, but walnut oil is lovely in the fall, especially in a salad topped with fresh pears, crumbled blue cheese, and walnuts (of course). If you use balsamic, consider using it for only part of the vinegar, as it is very strongly flavored. If you do use olive oil, you will find that leftover dressing clouds and becomes less fluid when refrigerated. Just let it come closer to room temperature before reusing.

Creamy Garlic Vinaigrette

This recipe uses a blender to emulsify the dressing, which keeps the oil and vinegar from separating. It also uses granulated garlic, which is not the same thing as garlic powder. I buy granulated garlic at Costco, but I’ve also found it on the shelves or in the bulk spice area at other stores. I used to make this in a blender until I acquired an immersion blender — it’s much easier to combine the ingredients in a Mason jar, insert the immersion blender, then blend away.

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup organic expeller-pressed canola oil

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon granulated garlic

½ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 clove fresh garlic

3/8 cup boiling water

 

Combine all ingredients except the boiling water in a blender (or in a jar if using an immersion blender), then add the boiling water. Blend on high speed until the dressing thickens. Refrigerate.

Cider-Yogurt Coleslaw Dressing

This recipe uses apple cider vinegar, but I’ve also made it using rice vinegar. I find that using a less-acidic vinegar helps reduce the amount of sweetener sometimes called for in slaw recipes. This will make enough to dress a small head of cabbage (about 1 pound), cored and shredded. Using red cabbage and adding a few shredded carrots makes for a pretty slaw.

 

3 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

 

Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl. Add shredded vegetables and toss to coat.