Vinegar was clearly invented by accident, as all it takes to make it is to leave wine out in the open air, in any container, and it turns into vinegar. And wine has existed for thousands of years.
Traces of wine have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This vin aigre or "sour wine" is mentioned in the writings of Aristotle and Sophocles. Greek and Romans used it as both a condiment and drink, mixed with fresh water. In ancient times, they had already started to flavor it with herbs, fruits, and flowers.
It was also used to preserve certain products, and it is likely that this use of vinegar was also discovered by accident. No doubt a vegetable fell into a pot of sour wine and was rediscovered, still intact, months later. As a result, it was used (probably from the 1st century) to preserve food, and people acquired a taste for the pickled flavor.
It is certainly the antiseptic properties of vinegar that has resulted in thousands of medicinal vinegars being created over the centuries.
In France, vinegar production became an organized affair in the Middle Ages with the creation, in 1394, of the Orléans guild of vinegar, mustard and sauce makers. At the time, Orléans was a major port from where the wines of Anjou and the rest of the Loire Valley were transported to Paris. The poor-quality wines turned sour during the long journey and so locals used them to make vinegar. This is why Orléans was considered the vinegar capital of France until the 19th century.
Until then, vinegar production was quite experimental. It was Louis Pasteur who, in 1865, discovered the bacterium Mycoderma aceti, responsible for producing acetic acid, thus clarifying the process and giving the industrial production of vinegar a real boost.
The quality of vinegar depends on the method used to make it.
For wine vinegar, obviously those made using traditional methods are the best.
All vinegar is sold in bottles, and sometimes in large plastic containers.
Special labels are affixed to bottles of sherry vinegar and balsamic vinegar to indicate their age.
There are many uses for vinegar in cooking. Thanks to its acidity, it can tenderize meat, "cook" a product, and enhance a marinade. It is a means of preserving food (such as pickles, etc.) and is also used as a flavor enhancer.
Vinegar is not particularly fragile and so can be stored at room temperature. The bottle should always be kept closed to prevent evaporation or a loss of flavor and acidity.
The acidity of vinegar may aid digestion by giving it a boost.
For centuries, many therapeutic properties have been attributed to vinegar. None have ever been scientifically verified. However, its acidity gives it antiseptic properties.
The principle of vinegar production is based on the development of acetic acid bacteria in contact with the air. These bacteria are found on fruit, on containers, or simply in the air.
As they multiply, they form a film, which can be of varying thickness and is called the "mother", and convert ethanol (alcohol) into acetic acid, the main component of vinegar.
Different methods are used to make vinegar.
This is the oldest method. Wine is placed in oak barrels, filled three-quarters full. As the acetic acid develops, more wine is added. This method is now only used by traditional producers to make small volumes of wine or cider vinegar. In France, only one producer uses it: Martin Pouret.
Also called the German method. Wine or another alcoholic liquid trickles over beechwood chips stored in a tank until there is no more alcohol left. Bacteria grow on the surface of the chips. This method is used to make 30% of all vinegar produced in the world.
The most common method, and the fastest. Oxygen and acetic acid bacteria are injected into the alcoholic liquid, which is stirred continuously. The bacteria are suspended in the vinegar, which is then filtered, sometimes pasteurized, or aged in oak barrels and/or flavored.
- Wine vinegar
Wine vinegar can be made from red or white wine. It is the most common type of vinegar in the world and the one that offers the widest choice, including: red wine vinegar, aged red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, red or white wine vinegar flavored with garlic, shallots, tarragon (or other herbs), truffle, fruit (raspberry, blackcurrant, fig, pomegranate, passion fruit, etc.), flowers (lavender), or spices (such as cinnamon, vanilla, or cloves).
This category includes:
. Sherry vinegar (Spanish: vinaigre de Jerez) is a Spanish vinegar made from white wine and has PDO status. It is produced using the criaderas et soleras system, which relies on a succession of oak barrels. The youngest wine is in the criadera (which means "nursery"), and is mixed in gradually to the soleras to ensure uniform quality. It is aged for at least six months in oak barrels. The Jerez Reserva vinegar is aged for at least 2 years and up to 80 years. It can contain up to 3% alcohol.
. Moscatel sherry vinegar (PDO), made with sherry and Moscatel (Muscat) wine using the same system.
. Barolo vinegar, made from the red wine of the same name produced in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is made in the traditional way, and then aged in small barrels made from oak (which grows in the Piedmont region) and larch. Its acidity is 7.5% and its alcohol content is 4%. It tastes of fruit and wine. Sediment in the bottle is a sign of its authenticity.
. Balsamic vinegars
. Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (PDO), Italian. Produced from cooked grape must (not wine) from Lambrusco, Trebbiano, Marzemino, and Spergola grape varieties traditionally grown in the province of Reggio Emilia, where Modena is situated. It is placed in progressively smaller barrels made of different woods (oak, juniper, cherry, mulberry, and chestnut). The vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years (affinato) or a minimum of 25 years (extravecchio). It becomes more syrupy and aromatic with age.
. Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia (PDO): made using the same method as for the Modena balsamic vinegar, and aged in the same way.
. Aceto balsamico condimenti: produced using the same method, it is either not aged at all or aged for only a short amount of time (3–5 years).
. Aceto balsamico industriale: produced quickly and in large quantities, it is not always made using cooked grapes and it is not aged. Caramel or sugar cane is often added to give it the sweet flavor typical of balsamic vinegar.
- Rice vinegar
All types of rice vinegar are made in Asia from fermented rice wines. There are many varieties made from white, black, red, or brown rice. Brown rice vinegar (genmai-su) is less acidic than the others. Japanese white rice vinegar (kome-su) is sweeter than the Chinese version. It is often flavored with dried bonito flakes, ginger, or chili, etc. Black rice vinegar (kuro-su) is a specialty of western Japan. Amasu is a particularly sweet, almost sugary, variety.
Japan also produces sushi vinegar, organic rice vinegar, and shiso rice vinegar, etc.
In China, rice vinegar has a concentration of acetic acid ranging from 25–5%.
- Spirit vinegar: made from beet alcohol, it is sometimes colored with caramel. It has many uses, for both consumption and as a household product.
- Cider and perry vinegar
The first is made from cider in apple growing areas. It is very popular in the United States. Fairly mild, it can be flavored with herbs, honey, or nuts.
Perry vinegar, made from pears, is less widespread. In some countries, it is called pear vinegar.
- Malt or beer vinegar
This is obtained from the juice of barley grains that have been germinated then roasted, ground, and stirred into hot water to produce a blonde beer with a high concentration of acetic acid. It is sometimes colored with caramel, and is widely used in Britain and the countries of northern Europe.
- Grain vinegar
This is made from alcohol distilled from corn, sorghum, and other cereals: whiskey vinegars (including bourbon in the U.S.), and eau-de-vie vinegars (especially in Germany), etc.
- Honey vinegar
Made from mead, a mixture of honey and water, it has quite a sharp taste.
- Vinegars made from fruit juices and vegetables
There are many vinegars made from fruit juice or vegetables fermented with sugar, some dating back to ancient times, such as vinegar made from fig, gooseberry (in Britain), or grapefruit (in Burma).
- Sap vinegars
In Canada, this is made from maple syrup. In the tropics, it is made from a syrup of dates from the date palm.
- Sugar vinegar
Prepared from sugar cane molasses, sugar vinegar is produced in the West Indies and Réunion.