In the Beginning

img_loreIt is intriguing to think that in today’s computerized, sophisticated world, we’re still using one product that was discovered – quite by chance – more than 10,000 years ago.

Vinegar. Simplicity itself (although its manufacturing process today is anything but). The French said it succinctly: vin aigre – meaning sour wine. That is its origin, the discovery that a cask of wine gone past its time had turned to a wonderful new product. Through the centuries vinegar has been produced from many other materials including molasses, dates, sorghum, fruits, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains and whey. But the principle remains unchanged – fermentation of natural sugars to alcohol and then secondary fermentation to vinegar. You might say wine is to grapes what vinegar is to wine.

The ancients were quick to find the remarkable versatility of vinegar. Around 5,000 B.C., the Babylonians used it as a preservative and as a condiment, and it was they who began flavoring it with herbs and spices. Roman legionnaires used it as a beverage. Cleopatra demonstrated its solvent property by dissolving precious pearls in it to win a wager that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. Hippocrates extolled its medicinal qualities and, indeed, it was probably one of our earliest remedies. The Greeks also reportedly made pickled vegetables or meats using vinegar. Biblical references show how it was much used for its soothing and healing properties. And when Hannibal, a great general, crossed the Alps with an army riding elephants, it was vinegar that helped pave the way. Obstructive boulders were heated and doused with vinegar, which cracked and crumbled the barriers. By about 3,000 B.C., the making of homemade vinegar was being phased out and, in 2,000 B.C., vinegar production was largely a commercial industry. During the American Civil War, vinegar was used to treat scurvy, and as recently as World War I, it was being used to treat wounds.

Today’s Vinegar

Throughout history, vinegar has proven to be the most versatile of products. The dictionary defines versatile as “capable of turning with ease from one thing to another,” and for the past 10,000 years consumers have used vinegar in a variety of ways.

The vinegar produced and used today is much like the product of years past, but with newly discovered flavors and uses. The mainstays of the category – white distilled, cider, wine and malt have now been joined by balsamic, rice, rice wine, raspberry, pineapple, chardonnay, flavored and seasoned vinegars and more. See the Specialty Vinegars section below for more information on these products and how to use them.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that any product called “vinegar” contain at least 4% acidity. This requirement ensures the minimum strength of the vinegar sold at the retail level. There are currently no standards of identity for vinegar however the FDA has established “Compliance Policy Guides” that the Agency follows regarding labeling of vinegars such as cider, wine, malt, sugar, spirit and vinegar blends. Other countries, as in Europe, have regional standards for vinegar produced or sold in the area.

From the kitchen to the bathroom and beyond, vinegar is the most flexible of products sure to have a daily use in your home and life. See the VI Tips section for more information about how to use vinegar in and around, and even outside, your home. If you are interested in vinegar market trends click here.


Today’s Specialty Vinegars

Specialty vinegars make up a category of vinegar products that are formulated or flavored to provide a special or unusual taste when added to foods. Specialty vinegars are favorites in the gourmet market.

  • Herbal vinegars: Wine or white distilled vinegars are sometimes flavored with the addition of herbs, spices or other seasonings. Popular flavorings are garlic, basil and tarragon – but cinnamon, clove and nutmeg flavored vinegars can be a tasty and aromatic addition to dressings.
  • Fruit vinegars: Fruit or fruit juice can also be infused with wine or white vinegar. Raspberry flavored vinegars, for example, create a sweetened vinegar with a sweet-sour taste.

Some popular specialty vinegars currently on the market include:

Balsamic Vinegar

Consumers have a variety of high quality Balsamic Vinegars available to them for purchase and use. 

  • Balsamic Vinegar of Modena* – Traditional and Commercial (PGI)
  • Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia
  • Domestic Balsamic Vinegar Produced in the U.S. & North America

*Balsamic Vinegar not produced in Modena cannot use the term “of Modena” on its label. The protections afforded by the “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” appellation refer to geographical restrictions of grape growing and processing and provide guidelines for ingredients and production techniques, based on historical practices. 

Storage: Balsamic Vinegars have a very long shelf life and can be stored in a closed container indefinitely.  It is suggested to store the product at 4 – 30°C (40-86°F), but refrigeration is not required.  Exposure to air will not harm the product, but may cause “mothering,” which causes the solids to filter out.  Some sedimentation is normal for a product that contains a high level of soluble solids (as with the aged products), but the sedimentation will disappear when the bottle is agitated.

Uses: Salad dressings, sauces and gravies benefit from the addition of Balsamic Vinegar.  Sprinkle on cooked meats to add flavor and aroma; season salad greens, strawberries, peaches and melons; use as an ingredient in your favorite salad dressing.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is classified in two categories: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”) or Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (“Aceto Balsamico di Modena”).

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena must be produced within the town of Modena  in Italy.   It was granted a protected designation of origin (PDO) by the European Union in 2000 (Council Regulation (EC) No 813/2000, April 17, 2000).

“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” is made from white and sugary Trebbiano grapes grown on the hills around Modena. Custom demands that the grapes are harvested as late as possible to take advantage of the warmth that nature provides there. This traditional vinegar is made from the cooked grape “must” and is aged for a minimum of 12 years or 25 years (denoted by the label claim “extra aged”).  The aging process occurs inside barrels of successively smaller size of different kinds of wood, such as juniper, chestnut, mulberry and oak.

All of the product that is bottled must pass a sensory examination run by a panel of five tasting judges.  The Italian Ministry of Agriculture in 2009 designated Consorzio Tutela ABTM (Consortium for Protection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) to run controls and to supervise manufacturing, as well as to promote the product at the institutional level. The Consortium has over 300 members.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is only bottled in the distinct bulb-shaped glass bottle of 100 ml (3.4 ounces).  Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is dark brown, but full of warm light.  It is exceptionally sweet and thick, with a rich, complex aroma with light acidity.  It is generally found in specialty stores.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI obtained a protected geographical indication (PGI) in 2009 (Council Regulation (EC) No 583/2009, July 9, 2009) and must be produced within the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.

The production of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is very labor intensive and time consuming.  Therefore, it is very expensive and available in limited quantities.  Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI constitutes a more economical alternative to the traditional product.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is made from grape “must” that is partially fermented and/or boiled and/or concentrated by adding a quantity of vinegar aged for at least 10 years and with the addition of at least 10% of vinegar produced from the acidification of wine only. The grape “must” should be produced from the following grape varieties, Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana, and Montuni.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI must follow the customary method of acidification, followed by refining.  Acidification (a slow vinegarization process through natural fermentation) is followed by refining (progressive concentration by aging) in high-quality casks made from different types of wood (e.g., sessil oak, chestnut, oak, mulberry or juniper) and without the addition of any other spices or flavorings.  Only caramel may be added at small levels for color stability. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI must be aged for at least 60 days (2 months) up to three years.  Product aged more than 3 years can be labeled as “aged.”

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI can be packaged in a variety of sizes (ranging from 250 ml to 5 liters) and must be in bottles made of glass, wood, ceramic or terracotta and carries the PGI seal.  Some limited exceptions apply.   The color of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is deep brown, but clear and bright.  The fragrance is persistent, delicate and slightly acidic with woody overtones.  The flavor is bitter-sweet but balanced.  It can be found in specialty stores, supermarkets and supercenters.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia (“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia”) is similar to Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Traditional Balsamic vinegar of Reggio Emilia was granted a protected designation of origin (PDO) by the European Union in 2000.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia” is made in the same way as the better known variety of Modena, the only differences being the manufacturing area (which is individuated in the province of Reggio Emilia, adjacent to Modena), and the bottle in which it must be compulsorily packaged: in the case of Reggio, it is a small, bell-shaped glass bottle of the same 100ml (3.4 ounces) size.

Balsamic vinegars produced domestically in the United States (U.S.) and North America are made from wine vinegar blended with grape juice or grape “must.”  Caramel may be added in small levels for color stability. Some juice may be subjected to an alcoholic and subsequent acetous fermentation and some to concentration or heating.  These products typically have a clean balsamic vinegar flavor and aroma with a sweet and sour taste.  The color is typically dark brown, except for white balsamic vinegars.

In the U.S., products are also allowed to be labeled as “Balsamic Vinegar” based on the U.S. labeling laws.  They cannot carry the term “of Modena” on the label nor carry the PGI seal.  Balsamic vinegars produced domestically in the U.S. and North America can be found in specialty stores, super markets and other retail stores.

Malt Vinegar

Malt vinegar is an aged and filtered product obtained from the acetous fermentation of distilled infusion of malt and is a good example of vinegar originating from cereals.  Malt is the result of grain softened by steeping in water and allowed to germinate.  Germination causes the natural enzymes in the grain to become active and help digest the starch present in the grain.  The starch is converted into sugars prior to fermentation.  Malt has a distinctive flavor that contributes to the flavor of malt vinegar and brewed beverages such as beer.

Uses: Malt vinegar is popular for pickling, especially walnut pickles.  It is most famous as the companion to fish and chips.  Any English recipe calling for vinegar typically uses malt vinegar unless otherwise noted.  There are recipes using malt vinegar on the Recipe page.

Red Wine Vinegar

Red wine vinegar is made from red wine. Producers allow the red wine to ferment until it turns sour. Once fermentation is complete, the vinegar can be strained or bottled, or is aged. The longer the vinegar ages, the more muted the flavor becomes. Red wine vinegar can be aged up to two years before bottling.  Even after purification and straining, a minuscule amount of sediment will remain at the bottom of the bottle. Red wine vinegar can be used in salad dressings and sauces, pickling, slow food and cooked in reductions to make sauces.

Raspberry Red Wine Vinegar

Natural raspberry flavor is added to red wine vinegar which is the aged and filtered product obtained from the acetous fermentation of select red wine.  Raspberry red wine vinegar has a characteristic dark red color and a piquant, yet delicate raspberry flavor.

Uses: Sprinkle raspberry vinegar on fruit salads; use as a marinade or basting sauce for meats; use as an ingredient in your favorite salad dressing, or use by itself on salads or cooked vegetables.

Rice Vinegar

Rice or rice wine vinegar is the aged and filtered product obtained from the acetous fermentation of sugars derived from rice.  Rice vinegar is excellent for flavoring with herbs, spices and fruits due to its mild flavor.  It is light in color and has a clean, delicate flavor.  Widely used in Asian dishes, rice vinegar is popular because it does not significantly alter the appearance of the food.

Uses: Dash over salads, add to a quick stir-fry dish with ginger or liven up vegetables and fruits.

White Wine Vinegar

White wine vinegar is the aged and filtered product obtained through the acetous fermentation of a selected blend of white wines.  It is clear and pale gold, almost colorless.  The taste is distinctly acidic, and the aroma reminiscent of the wine from which it comes.

Uses:  White wine vinegar can be used to bring out the sweetness in strawberries and melons, add a twist to spicy salsas and marinades and wake up the flavor of sauces and glazes.  This product is perfect for today’s lighter cooking style — replace heavy cream or butter with a splash of white wine vinegar to balance flavors without adding fat.  The tart, tangy taste also reduces the need for salt.  See our Recipes page for ideas on how to use white wine vinegar.

Other Specialty Vinegars

Coconut and cane vinegars are common in India, the Philippines and Indonesia with date vinegar popular in the Middle East.