Vinegar for a novice

"I can't deal with food that's not balanced and what's most often missing is an element of acidity – I know most chefs will agree with that. Obviously a lot of people salt to taste, but acidity opens up a whole new pathway to your palate."
A quote from Michael Harlan Turkell’s 2017 book, Acid Trip, which resonates with me more than any other on the subject. There have been a number of articles and some excellent books on vinegar recently, but I always refer to that.
Viewing vinegar as seasoning was a gamechanger for me. The idea of using good quality, raw vinegar in lieu of citrus opened my eyes to the possibilities – but employing vinegar as you would salt, spice or herbs completely changed the way I cook. As a cupboard essential, varieties of vinegar are now in there, fighting for attention above oil.
I’ve been working full-time with my brother, Sam Britten, on our craft vinegar business for the best part of a year. If you’ve seen a post on our social channels or had an email from us, it was most likely *waves* me. Anyway, I now intimately understand Sam’s inspiration, methods, processes and – crucially – control over flavour. Naturally, an appreciation for and use of vinegar in my own cooking has developed as a result. I'm by no means a skilled cook, although during the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown I am destined to cook more than my tried, tested, and overused favourites.
In the UK, malt vinegar is most associated with fish and chips. Then we have vinegar in salad dressing, pickles and crisps. And that’s, for many, about it. Perhaps a white or red wine vinegar might get dusted off and make an appearance when following a recipe. Or a balsamic, having got swept away with it in the 90s, from time to time. But we’re much more familiar with vinegar in the UK than we realise. As children, we get hooked on tomato ketchup which, along with being sweet, cuts through the oven-baked, yellow freezer meals. Fish and chips are as British as you get and have vinegar coming at it from all angles: ketchup, ‘non-brewed condiment’, malt vinegar, tartare sauce, mushy peas. The raging debate over brown or red sauce in a bacon or sausage cob, never mind what you call a bread roll. Cheese and pickle sandwiches? Vinegar again.
Way before Sam started brewing beer and then trying his hand at making vinegar, someone recommended to me mixing in a splash of white wine vinegar to mushy peas once home from the chippy. It was incredible. Mushy peas on steroids, literally mouth-watering. But I never really progressed from there in experimenting with acidity, save for a squeeze of lemon on sesame prawn toast or finishing off pan-fried fish. Until more recently that is.
When it’s available, I will reach for a bottle of sugar kelp vinegar or bere malt vinegar for pretty much everything I cook. And if I can’t get hold of ours, I’ll make do with a basic cider or sherry vinegar, often using them earlier in the cooking process to cook out some of the acidity. As a knock-on effect and added bonus, I also now find that I need less salt to season.
"Quality is important. Vinegar should taste of the alcohol from which it derives; ideally, it should bring to mind the fruit that was its grandparent. You should relish the flavour of a capful." Mark Diacono also says in his 2019 book, Sour: "There are a couple of sherry vinegars in particular that I'm unable to use without taking a little nip of myself." I felt very seen reading that. If there’s any of our range out on the worktops while I’m cooking, more often than not, I’ll have a wee sip to get the creative juices flowing.
In January at the SEC in Glasgow, before it was being repurposed to help the NHS cope with COVID-19 patients, I manned the Orkney Craft Vinegar trade show stall with our brand designer. I’m so used to swigging our vinegar neat that it was a surprise, almost an afront, when food buyers would politely decline tasting samples despite their interest. Many were happy to try without persuasion, and those encouraged rarely regretted it. After the initial sharpness, its roundedness overlaps then flavours disperse and linger. And linger. As one visitor, a cider producer who uncompromisingly wanted to taste our full range, said: “I’ve had worse wines.”
The depth of flavour and softness from a high-quality raw vinegar – especially one where the flavour begins from the ground up in the base alcohol rather than infused at the end – can be used sparingly to season food at the end of cooking. Rather than burning off all the subtlety earlier on. Quality is so important and that opens up lots of other opportunities. Remember the lemon on takeaway prawn toast from earlier? Well, I tried a few drops of the bere malt vinegar instead and nearly choked on them with excitement. So good. I’ve since learned from Sam that the bere malt vinegar works well with “robust fish and shellfish like scallops, lobster, langoustine, turbot, monkfish, brill, Dover sole.”
It’s a deep rabbit hole. But can be applied very simply to great effect. In Sour, Mark Diacono suggests experimenting with vinegar on everything – learning as much where it doesn’t work along with the successes. I wasn’t convinced when sprinkling some on roast potatoes but it was comfortably the best roast potato I’ve eaten. And that’s the secret; acidity makes ingredients pop, elevating them out of their collective selves. Elements of a dish shine and sing. A magnificent, most-potato-tasting roast potato. On that note, add vinegar to anything roasted: meat, veg, even fruit. Roasted root vegetables without any kind of vinegar on is a travesty. Try it.
The malt vinegars we make are more akin to sherry vinegar, particularly the highland park malt vinegar. That’s a good rule of thumb if you’ve bought a bottle and are looking for ideas of how to use it. Ageing in the whisky-soaked bourbon or sherry casks makes it unlike anything else in its class. The sugar kelp vinegar is the most versatile that we have available currently, a good all-rounder. The rosehip vinegar is somewhere in between.
Add vinegar in any form of soup or sauce. I had mushrooms on toast for lunch, and a splash of sherry vinegar right at the end before stirring through the cream and taking off the heat was superb. Completely lifted it. Smoked mackerel, cherry tomato and kale pasta (outrageously good), or a cheats ricotta and spinach lasagne, both livened up with rosehip vinegar last week for dinner. Bolognaise? Yep. Risotto? Yes. A soused cabbage side to go with pork, lamb or duck will cut right through that meat. I used the scallops recipe from our website at Christmas for the in-laws. Also pan-fried sprouts, nuts, butter, sherry vinegar. Oysters with a few drops of sugar kelp vinegar were laughably good too. Asparagus is coming into season and I’m going to adorn it with bere malt vinegar-spiked hollandaise, as Jesus intended.
A word of warning, however. As with salt or spice, use vinegar with caution and care – too much and your dish will be overwhelmed by acidity. How much is too much is entirely personal taste, but when I’m cooking for two at home I know I’ve got it right when she says ‘you haven’t used any vinegar this time, have you?’ I’m still learning.
Blog by Tom Britten

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