I am talking about oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Understanding each of these components, and how they work in cooking, can help each of us become a better cook.
They are usually referred to together — salt always with pepper and oil with vinegar — but don’t necessarily need to be that way. They have great individual powers that make them powerhouses on their own.
This week we begin a series that features each of these key ingredients. I will also be working in a few other pantry staples that, when analyzed individually, allow you to use them in ways that might seem unimaginable. Things like honey, wine, eggs and tomato products — each of which has been touted for various health benefits, as well.
I had planned to cover oil and vinegar this week, but when I began researching vinegar, this topic alone offered a wealth of information. I was reminded of my first weeks at culinary school and one of the initial tests we went through in developing our palate — a blind taste test of oils, vinegars, dried spices and herbs.
Part one involved 40 different dried and fresh herbs and spices that we were required to identify by smell, sight and taste. Part two was an assortment of approximately 30 oils and vinegars. Let’s just say I walked around with a very bad taste in my mouth for about six weeks leading up to that final exam.
There were a few things I learned, especially about the vinegars that made part of the exam a little easier. Sitting next to each other on the tray would be white balsamic, rice wine and champagne vinegar. Each are similar in color, but how do you identify each one or, more importantly, which one should you use in a recipe or salad dressing.
On the other hand, Champagne vinegar has a very sharp flavor and is typically high on the acidity scale at six or seven percent.
Rice wine vinegar is one of your milder vinegars and is typically around four percent acidity. It is also slightly sweet.
Malt, apple cider and balsamic vinegar were always easy to identify because the smell of the malt vinegar makes me think of fish and chips, and the apple cider really does smell and taste a bit like apples. It’s an interesting exercise and good to learn when considering which vinegar to use in a salad dressing based on what ingredients will be in a salad.
When cooking with vinegar, a little goes a long way, and in many recipes it is balanced with a sweet ingredient. You will see this often in Asian cooking. Vinegar will be an ingredient but there will also be an equal measurement of sugar.
In this week’s balsamic chicken recipe I was nervous about using 1/3 cup of balsamic in the sauce and once I got a whiff of the mixture knew it would be too overwhelming. But in the end, the vinegar played an opposite effect. As the chicken braises and the liquid simmers the vinegar reduces and sweetens. The result was a very rich flavor that was only slightly acidic.
Typically when you cook with vinegar the smell is overwhelming. If you make the homemade sriracha be prepared to open the windows and take a walk outside while the peppers are simmering in the vinegar. But don’t let the smell offend you the result is well worth the effort. If you’re a fan of this famous “rooster sauce,” once you make it fresh you will want to make it again and again. Plus it keeps in the refrigerator for months.
Vinegar is such a versatile item and not just for cooking. What are some of the amazing ways you use vinegar in your household?
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