How to Make Vinegar Even Better
Empower your sour
Vinegar is pretty much perfect as-is and I feel pretty hubristic suggesting that it even needs to try to improve, but really, shouldn't we all just try? Vinegar is excellent and has been since the first people many thousands of years ago were wondering why the wine they'd left out in an open vat suddenly tasted extra funky and pretty fantastic. Along the way, civilizations have used it for preserving, healing, cleansing, and of course eating and drinking. Vinegar doesn't need to be better—but it can be.
Y'all know about balsamic vinegar reduction, right? It's a fairly heavy, sweet vinegar to begin with, and heating it in a saucepan on the stove to thicken and concentrate it is a very simple way to add extra depth. But you can also take other vinegars made with sherry, rice wine, Champagne, red or white wine, or cider, pair them with fruits or spices that you like, and simmer it on the stove until the vinegar picks up even more flavor and sweetens a little. This works gorgeously with apples, pears, dates, figs, and cherries (work with whatever is in season), and can even stand a dollop of honey. Bring it to a boil, drop the temperature and simmer until the vinegar is the consistency you'd like, then pour the vinegar into a lidded container—along with the fruit if you'd like—to keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. Use the flavored vinegar on vegetables, in dressings, on cheese, and to top fruit and ice cream.
So you wanna chug your vinegar. That's nothing new; shrubs, or sweetened fruit vinegars, have been enjoying a renewed popularity over the past seven or eight years after having taken the last century off. The Vinegar Institute has a very straightforward method that's not unlike the simmering method, but with a few extra steps. Strain the fruit from the vinegar, add sugar, cook down to a syrup, and add to water or seltzer for a bright, refreshing beverage.
This really couldn't be simpler: Put herbs, fruit, spices, chiles, or alliums (peel garlic cloves but keep them whole) into a clean glass jar, pour the vinegar of your choice over them, screw on the lid (ideally a plastic one), put it the jar in a cool, dark place for two to six weeks, shake it every once in a while, and boop—you have infused vinegar. The only challenge comes in deciding which vinegar you'd care to pair with which addition. Apple cider vinegar is a great place to start, but there are no hard and fast rules. Give things a sniff and if they seem like you'd eat them in a salad together, let them hang out together for a few weeks to make friends. It also doesn't hurt to twist the cap open every few days, especially at the beginning, to burp any gases from the jar and forestall getting vinegar all over yourself when you open it later.
Vinegar doesn't go bad—it just gets cloudy from the "mother" beginning to form from cellulose produced by the bacteria that make vinegar happen. This isn't harmful, and the vinegar hasn't spoiled (it's self-preserving), but if it bugs you to look at, store the vinegar in the fridge to prevent this from happening.
There is a whole world of vinegars out there beyond just apple cider and balsamic, and these days, no shortage of reading matter on the subject. Pick up Michael Harlan Turkell's Acid Trip, Harry Rosenblum's Vinegar Revival, Jonathon Sawyer's House of Vinegar, or David Zilber's The Noma Guide to Fermentation and happily pickle your brain.