We want to help you better understand the vast array of vinegars from around the globe.
Published Jan. 31, 2023.
No matter what cuisines you cook from most frequently, there’s a pretty good chance there’s at least one bottle of vinegar in your cabinet right now. Aside from staples such as oil, salt, and sugar, there are few other ingredients that have such a ubiquitous presence. But for such a common staple, many of us have little understanding of how it comes to be that versatile bottle of tart liquid. We want to help you understand the scientific journey behind how vinegar is made and how it’s used to pickle, preserve, season, braise, marinate, and dress foods across the globe and in your own kitchen. We tasted 29 different vinegars, interviewed vinegar producers and sellers, and spoke to experts in various cuisines to learn as much about vinegar as possible.
The word vinegar is derived from the French word “vinaigre”; “vin” translates to wine and “aigre” translates to sour. In ancient Mesopotamia, people discovered that wine gone “bad” actually yielded its own delicious and versatile product. While this wine may have been made from grapes, it was also made from many other fruits or grains such as rice. Some of the first recorded uses of vinegar are by the Babylonians around 5000 BCE, but similar discoveries were likely being made across the world with organic materials native to those regions.
Two steps are required to make vinegar. Starting with a starch or sugar-filled substance, yeasts convert sugars to alcohol. Then, naturally occuring acetobacter (a type of bacteria) converts the alcohol to acetic acid, requiring oxygen and warm temperatures to do so. This is when the “mother,” a gelatinous cellulose form, is produced. (Learn more about the mother in the FAQs below.)
The acetobacter can’t thrive in a concentration of alcohol greater than about 10 percent, so producers starting with potent ingredients such as grain alcohol or rice wine typically dilute their product before production. Other vinegars are diluted afterward. There are three main methods of making vinegar. While each method can be used on its own, elements of each can be combined; all are still in use today.
The surface method is also called the Orléans method, after the city in France. In the 15th century, to avoid paying taxes upon arrival in Paris on wines gone bad, soured wines were abandoned on the banks of the Loire River at Orléans, describes author Michael Harlan Turkell in his book Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar (2017). The Orléans method focuses on maximizing the surface area of the liquid being fermented on which acetobacter will grow, aided by the flow of oxygen. F...
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Sarah is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews who is deeply passionate about anchovies and sourdough bread.