How's vinegar made? What vinegar is best? What recipes involve vinegar? We asked author and vinegar connoisseur Michael Harlan Turkell some hard-hitting questions on vinegar. Follow along to see why we've become a bit obsessed with trying new types of vinegar.
Vinegar. It can be a polarizing ingredient; it’s acidic, bitter, and complex. Yet, vinegar is one of the most globally adored and underrated ingredients. Plus, depending on where in the world you live, vinegar can vary greatly.
Michael Harlan Turkell, an award-winning food photographer, cookbook author, and the host of The Food Scene podcast, shines a light on all things vinegar in his new book, Acid Trip. He travels the globe and speaks to chefs, vinegar producers, and vinegar connoisseurs to learn and experience the power of vinegar and the place it holds in global cuisine.
Photo: Shannon Strugis
We spoke to Michael to better understand his attraction to vinegar and why home chefs should be stocking up on (or making their own) vinegar.
Why did you choose to write a book about Vinegar?
I've always had an acidic palate, and once I first made vinegar, accidentally, by leaving a bottle of red wine out and open, I realized how easy it way, and became a vinegar maker as hobby. What I found out quickly, was that is was not as simple as I just stated. Vinegar making takes time, and patience and the right set of conditions and controls to slowly foster along an alcohol into acetic acid. I was hooked, and have an undying desire to learn as much as I can about things I'm extremely interested in, so I started my ACID TRIP for fun. I had no idea it would eventually become a book.
How is Vinegar used differently throughout the world?
It's undeniable what vinegar can do in food. It can elevate and balance flavors in sauces, braises, cocktails, and desserts, but is used quite differently in many cultures. Take a vinaigrette recipe for instance. In France it's a bit more assertive, a 1:2 ratio of vinegar to oil, whereas in the United States it's closer to 1:3. In Japan, rice vinegar is used as a backbone to many sauces and marinades, but isn't as overt a flavor profile, as this is a broad statement, but a general rule in Japanese cooking, it's more about texture and mouthfeel (umami), than acid.
Is there one place in the world that Vinegar reigns supreme?
I answer this in reserve; there are only a few places in the world where vinegar doesn't exist. Thai cuisine uses a lot of fresh citruses. Indian cuisine uses lactic acid (yogurts) and dried mango powder (amba) for its acidic bite, although in the South, there's Goa, a Portuguese port city. It has plenty of vinegar in dishes like vindaloo. You'll see vinegar in other post-Portuguese colonies like Macau as well!
What are the must-have vinegar items to stock in your pantry?
I like an array, because each is different, in the same way you wouldn't use the same citrus for every dish. Lemons, limes, grapefruit, yuzu, they're so varied! I like a nice round rice vinegar for an array of uses, from dressing salads, to dipping sauces. A slightly sweet apple cider vinegar for longer cooked/marinaded recipes. Good quality red and white wine vinegars for sauces. A few fruit-forward flavored vinegars for desserts and drinks. And of course, a true DOP Traditionale balsamic if I'm lucky!
Photo Courtesy of Acid Trip
On that note, any show-stopping vinegar on a budget? Could even do it as a "money is no object" option and "the affordable alternative" option.
I'd always go with anything Gegenbauer makes, they're so special and singular. Here in the states I really love Keepwell Vinegar's variety lately.
What is your favorite vinegar-inspired recipe you feature in the book?
I'm a sucker for the Frittata with Balsamic Onions and Parmesan. I also love the Fennel Jam; it has golden raisins which are plumped and reduced down in an apple cider vinegar, and it becomes savory, sweet and sour! And I'm always down for a bowl of Chimichurri on the table with any grilled vegetables or meats! (Also see the Chimichurri Chicken Wings recipe!)
Any tips on using vinegar to blow away your dinner party guests?
It's not about hitting people over the head with them. It's about introducing them slowly, in smart ways, and letting people enjoy in a controlled environment. If you go too assertive too soon, you'll lose them, and they'll think they hate vinegar forever! It's like a tasting menu, there's a progression. Try something balanced with a bit of sugar first, and then get more acidic as you go, then add fat into the equation, as use the vinegar as a foil. I'd start someone off with a little spritzer of Celery Apple Shrub, it's so nice and refreshing. Bright flavors, with a lot of freshness. End with some ice cream, and a Balsamic Cherry Shrub syrup on top (recipe's in the book!)
Photo Courtesy of Acid Trip
If you could convey only on message about the world of vinegar from your travels, what would it be?
There's no one all-purpose vinegar. There's world of flavors out there, so try and figure out which vinegar makes the most sense with what you're cooking, eating, drinking. Usually, it's made of something from that place, a regional piece of produce, wine or spirit. What grows together, goes together is true, even in vinegar!
A BIG thanks for Michael for giving us all of this vinegar insight. Be sure to check out his book, Acid Trip.