No, this is the not the wine in Mylar bags sold in cardboard boxes. That wine was meant to taste
that way. This is the product that comes from wine or vin (in French) that has naturally soured
– aigre (again in French) or vin-aigre… vinegar. It can happen naturally as microorganisms
oxidize the ethyl alcohol in wine that has been sitting around too long to ethanoic acid
commonly known as acetic acid. The vinegar you find at the market can be produced the
natural way or it can be produced via the laboratory, it all depends how much you want to
spend on the product with high end Balsamico costing a king’s ransom down to industrial
quality white vinegar that’s only a couple of bucks per gallon. Personally I’m willing to spend a
little more for good wine, malt or rice vinegar and while industrial white vinegar has many uses I
don’t feel cooking is one of them. I’m still not into Soylent Green.
Some may disagree with me but I consider true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggia Emilia the King or Queen of vinegar. Produced in either
Modena or neighboring Reggia Emilia and strictly protected by the European Union, this
vinegar isn’t made in the usual fashion since it isn’t produced from fermented wine, but rather
from the syrupy motto costo or heavily reduced juice of Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. Most
are made primarily from the simmered juice of Trebbiano grapes (a white grape that also makes
very food friendly white wine) until only a third of the original juice remains and turns a
purplish red hue. This syrupy product is then successively aged in a series of various wood barrels
including acacia, ash, cherry, chestnut, juniper, mulberry and oak in successively smaller barrels
for a minimum of 12 years. During the aging process, older barrels literally dissolve into the
vinegar and are simply replaced by younger barrels being constructed around the older barrels as
it “dissolves”. According to the consortium, the finished product is bottled in 100ml bottles
that resemble the shape (and size) of a traditional incandescent light bulb in Modena or a flask
looking bottle in Reggio Emilia. They are usually available as 12 year old, 18 year old and 25
year old treasures and range in price from $65 all the way up to several hundred dollars for the
25 year old specimens. Obviously at this price range, these are not vinegars you use in
vinaigrette or for pickling. Usually just a couple of precious drops enhance a slice of Parmigiano
Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma or a scoop of good ice cream.
You can also find commercial grade or Balsamic vinegar of Modena in your local supermarket
though these are produced like everyday vinegar with thickeners and coloring agents to mimic
the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale texture… at a couple of dollars per bottle. These products can
be used in vinaigrettes with reckless abandon. Between the two you’ll find “Condimento” grade
of balsamic vinegar which is a happy medium between the Tradizionale and commercial grades.
The Asian Variety
Japanese rice wine vinegar is usually the lightest and mildest flavored of the Asian vinegars.
Obviously, its most common application is to season sushi rice (what better vinegar for rice
than rice wine vinegar) though it’s also used for salad dressing and pickle making. Since Japanese
rice wine vinegar is milder than western white vinegar, you can’t substitute one for one when
cooking. If I ever find myself out of rice wine vinegar and need to use a western vinegar, I
usually only use 2/3 of the western variety in the recipe.
Chinese rice vinegars are usually darker and stronger flavored than their Japanese counterparts.
Their black vinegar is made from black glutinous rice and has a rich almost caramel smokiness to
the flavor while the red vinegar is produced from red yeast rice that has been fermented with
Monascus purpureus and while weaker in flavor than black vinegar, it’s still stronger than
Japanese rice vinegar. Interestingly, the fermentation of red yeast rice by Monascus purpureus
also produces the compound lovastatin. When it was first released in 1987, it went by the trade
name Mevacor or the first statin medication to help lower LDL cholesterol or bad cholesterol.
This spawned the whole generation of subsequent statin medications such as Zocor, Lipitor,
Lescol and Crestor. Which started simply by the production of a simple red rice vinegar.
Other than the Balsamic and Asian variety, the vinegars that occupy my pantry are a variety of
wine based vinegars. I always have a red wine vinegar on hand that I use alone and in
combination with Balsamico for vinaigrettes, a Sherry vinegar that I primarily use in my
Romesco sauce or red pepper, almond and garlic based sauce and I may or may not have a
Champagne vinegar that is mainly used for Hollandaise sauce (I find that a mixture of fresh
lemon juice and Champagne vinegar produces the best Hollandaise especially for gravlax based
Eggs Benedict). Most of these can be purchased at large supermarkets or your friendly
neighborhood Williams Sonoma shop.
I also keep a bottle of apple cider vinegar on hand when I need large quantities of vinegar
(mainly for pickling) since the sharper acidity of apple cider vinegar allows you to use less. Malt
vinegar which is produced from malted barley in beer making is popular with the Brits on their
fish-n-chips but being a tartar sauce kind of guy, I rarely have malt vinegar on hand (and I
never acquired the taste for malt vinegar and salt potato chips).
Non Pickling Vinegar Applications
I first tried a variation of this dish at the Greystone Restaurant in Napa Valley many years ago.
It supposedly was a variation of a Tuscan bean dish with tuna. Upon returning, we discovered a
recipe in Bon Appetit magazine that I’ve altered to the point that I’m not sure what the actual
original recipe was in the first place. But it combines hearty tuna, creamy beans and red wine
vinaigrette that’s perfect by itself, on a green salad or with toasted bread… and a nice glass of
Pinot Noir or Sangiovese. And most of the recipe comes from cans (or you can cook your own
beans and fresh tuna if desired).
Tuna and Cannelini Bean Salad
2 six ounce cans of tuna, drained (save oil if packed in olive oil)
2 fourteen ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 small or ½ medium red onion finely minced
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
3-4 tbsp minced fresh sage
½ cup extra virgin olive oil (use oil from tuna if olive oil packed)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Mix first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl. Whisk next 4 ingredients then toss with first 5
ingredients. Serve immediately or chill for 1-2 hours then serve.
The idea for this recipe came from Michael Chiarello of Napa Style, Bottega Restaurant and Top
Chef Masters who demonstrated his version on the Food Network with Salisbury Steak. Since I’
m not a big meat eater, I applied the braising liquid to chicken breasts. Namely IQF
(individually quick frozen) chicken breasts purchased en masse from the big box retailers as a
bargain. Only to find that half the bag developed freezer burn due to underuse (actually forgot
about them in the deep recesses known as the back of the freezer). Braise them at 300 degrees
for 1 to 2 hours and they’ll be as tender as fresh chicken breasts.
2 cans reduced sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
8 ounce button mushrooms quartered
8 ounce fresh shiitake quartered
1 onion roughly chopped
2 carrots roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic roughly minced
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Bring mixture to a boil, add chicken breasts (can use 6 to 8 chicken breasts cut in half) and
bring back up to a boil, cover then place in 300 degree oven for 1 to 2 hours. At 1 hour mark,
make sure enough liquid remains to braise, otherwise add more chicken stock.
Stretching the Good Stuff
Several years ago we purchased a bottle of the good stuff from Williams Sonoma. Since it’s used
by the drops, even a 100ml bottle lasts for some time. And over time, a sediment forms on the
sides and bottom of the bottle. What we’ve managed to do is refill the bottle with good quality
Condimento quality balsamic vinegar… I’ve actually refilled the original bottle 5 times which
dissolves some but not all of that sediment goodness. And it has at least another 2 refillings
before the sediment is exhausted. Which means that the original $100 price tag will eventually
work its way down to $12.50 per bottle. I realize that the quality at this point isn’t exactly
Tradizionale quality but it’s still better than Condimento quality at a fraction of the price. Not
S-class Mercedes but still C-class at a Toyota price. I encourage you to do the same.
Cooking with Sour Wine