I'm gonna need some new vinegar, I thought to myself, when the Lent plan came together.
See, I figure a lot of salads are in my future. I am fairly simple about my salads -- lettuce, cucumber, sometimes radish, and dressing. But I don't like much dressing on my salads, so it makes sense to make some more interesting vinaigrettes available. And that got me thinking about vinegar.
What vinegar is, and you may not have thought about this much before, is a sour liquid produced when low-alcohol liquids have been exposed to acetobacter -- a commonplace bacteria, which, like those responsible for sourdough and pickles and wild beer, is floating in the air all around you right now. Acetobacter eats ethanol and turns it into acetic acid, the acid that gives vinegar its tartness (it's good to be aware of different acids -- malic acid in apples, citric acid in oh-you-guess-what, and so on, because "acidity" comes in many flavors).
So vinegar tends to come in types based on low-alcohol starters -- malt vinegar (unhopped beer, generally), wine vinegar, cider vinegar. You can make any of these at home -- simply by leaving the solution uncovered (diluted to 5-8% alcohol if necessary) and hoping some of the acetobacter land, or by adding some "mother of vinegar," which is a bacterial culture made up of acetobacter and cellulose, which will occur naturally in any vinegar and remain there if it isn't pasteurized. The most foolproof way to make vinegar at home seems to be to pick up a bottle of unpasteurized vinegar -- Bragg's apple cider vinegar is the most common brand in the US, and is often in the health food aisle -- and add a few spoonfuls of that to whatever it is you're turning into vinegar. I have a highly hopped beer vinegar zooming along on my kitchen counter right now, made with a bottle of Dixie Blackened Voodoo, a bottle of Hop Wallop, and a bottle of Sam Adams Imperial Pilsner.
The cider vinegar in the photo there is from Pierre Gingras, in Quebec. Like Bragg's, it's unpasteurized. Like most good cider, it's made from a blend of different apples (four in this case), but unlike most cider vinegars, it's aged for a minimum of two years in oak, which both develops the flavor (cf. bourbon) and apparently has some health benefits. Pierre Gingras is big on emphasizing the health benefits of its products.
This is a good vinegar. And incidentally, I should mention that I got it from Zingermans, and that when the first bottle arrived leaking from being banged up in transit, customer service had a replacement to me within a few days.
The other vinegars, though? Now these are wild. Gegenbauer, an Austrian company, makes vinegars unlike anyone else's. Usually when you say "raspberry vinegar," for instance, it's one of two things: (grape) wine vinegar to which sugar and raspberry flavoring have been added (such as in a lot of supermarket vinegars); or (grape) wine vinegar in which raspberries have rested for a while, contributing juice and color and flavor (such as in a lot of gourmet vinegars).
Gegenbauer's raspberry vinegar is made by fermenting the raspberries into a wine, and then fermenting the wine into vinegar. That's it. Those are the ingredients: raspberries, acetobacter, and time. No grapes.
This is more resource-intensive, and the vinegars aren't cheap. But you get a type of flavor you simply can't produce any other way. Some day I'll try their quince vinegar, for instance, which I'm damn curious about, but for now I thought vegetable vinegars would be more practical. The tomato is very sharp-tasting, golden colored, sort of fresh-tomato-juice-tasting. I'm looking forward to trying it with some fresh tomatoes in ... five or six long months.
The red pepper is a revelation. It's very sweet, surprisingly fresh tasting, and the acidity combined with the flavor of paprika pepper gives you a little illusion of spiciness without the burn. It's very cool.
A vinaigrette's real simple. Oil and vinegar. Combine in proportions to taste, stir to combine. A little mustard helps them stay emulsified. A little salt helps bring out flavor. Additions like herbs, spices, or chopped vegetables add other flavors.
Either of the Gegenbauer vinegars -- maybe in combination -- seem to me like they'll make a good Catalina dressing, with the addition of oil and tomato puree and onion, which is another reason I went with them. So far, though, I've been perfectly happy just combining them with oil and one or two spices -- like sumac and (the smallest shake of) cinnamon with pistachio oil, for a sort of faux-Persian vinaigrette.