In the wide world of vinegars, it might be easy to think balsamic vinegar (and specifically balsamic vinegar of Modena) is the only kind that can be dubbed “truly gourmet.” Of course, for those among us who’ve experimented with many different vinegar types, you might find we disagree.
Every vinegar has its distinctions, talents, purposes, and a special corner of the culinary world where it can truly shine. As it so happens, red wine vinegar doesn’t fall too far behind balsamic vinegar as a potentially very fine condiment— and definitely not a vinegar to be overlooked.
THE RISE AND FALL (AND RISE AGAIN) OF RED WINE VINEGAR
Decades ago, balsamic vinegar became all the rage in the global culinary world. Knowledge of its existence finally left its homeland (Italy) to spread around all over the world as a long-lasting culinary trend. In almost no time, other vinegars just couldn’t seem to compare to balsamic’s exquisiteness in the eyes of many chefs. Apple, grape, and many other types (including red wine) were at times even viewed as “inferior.”
Many years later, though — and after the balsamic craze finally died down, though it’s still a very widespread product today — food professionals looked at vinegar varieties in a whole new light, esteeming each different kind for its own unique virtues. Of these, red wine vinegar has made one of the strongest comebacks, and it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Though it doesn’t take at least 12 years (and sometimes up to 100!) to carefully craft and ferment like a balsamic, people tend to take a liking to red wine vinegar. It has its own “fanciness factor” (it can be made from high quality red wine, after all), as well as a unique flavor and beauty it lends to dishes in ways that are fully distinct from balsamic. Today, red wine vinegar is now one of the most popular vinegars in the United States.
As stated above, red wine vinegar is made from red wine — and yes, it can even be made from highly esteemed vintages, which are then fermented using a colony of bacteria and yeast. After initial fermentation, the vinegar mellows but will still have its trademark vinegar bite— along with a silky tannin taste, astringent texture, and wonderful fruity fragrance that makes it stand apart from other common table vinegars.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST: RED WINE VINEGAR VS. BALSAMIC
Balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar can be equally great in their own rights. But what really sets them apart? How are they made? What do they taste like? In what instances are they best used—and when should you notuse each of them?
Let’s take a closer look.
- HOW IS IT MADE?
Balsamic vinegar of Modena: a slow fermentation process using casks of fine wood, like cherry or oak. Can take up to 100 years and requires adept technique and skill. An authentic bottle can be very expensive!
Red wine vinegar: fermented using a vinegar “mother” suspended in red wine. Common products found at stores can be made from red wines of varying qualities. At some specialty stores, you may find “top shelf” red wine vinegar fermented from a very fine vintage.
- WHAT ARE ITS DISTINCT FLAVORS?
Balsamic vinegar of Modena: great balsamic vinegars are a perfect convening of syrupy sweetness, tartness, and smoky flavors from their fermentation in fine wood.
Red wine vinegar: very tangy and astringent with an overtly sharp and clean flavor. Accompanied with floral and fruity aromas, especially the better the red wine vintage and quality. More in line with “classic” vinegar.
- HOW SHOULD YOU USE IT?
Balsamic vinegar of Modena: in vinaigrettes, marinades, and glazes. Drizzle on sweet desserts and confections, particularly ones made with cream and dark berries (like raspberries). Can be tasted on its own.
Red wine vinegar: it’s similarly great for vinaigrettes, marinades, and select sauces. A stellar vinegar for quick pickling any vegetable or adding more interesting tangy notes to meats: fish, duck, seafood, and cold meats in particular.
- WHEN SHOULD YOU NOT USE IT?
Balsamic vinegar of Modena: in sauces or dishes that are going to get thoroughly heated or cooked— heat ruins balsamic vinegar’s character. Less is more; hold back on using it in all courses of a meal, save it for only one dish. A little bit goes a long way.
Red wine vinegar: in recipes that call for red wine. Red wine vinegar cannot be a substitute for red wine, but it can be an ample (nay, better) substitute in any dish calling for typical table or white vinegar.
Á LA CHEF DOMINIQUE: HOW TO BEST USE RED WINE VINEGAR
Starting with the obvious: red wine vinegar makes for an amazing vinaigrette. Chef Dominique favors mixing it with a foundation of olive oil and mustard for something basic yet sublime, bound to elevate even the simplest salad!Better yet: if you don’t have lemon juice on hand for a vinaigrette, red wine vinegar works just as well (though no need to use both, this may add too much sourness to the final product).
Next in line are some amazing sauces. Dominique’s first favorite: a mayo- or aioli-like “sauce gribiche” combining the vinegar with egg, capers, old-fashioned mustard, parsley, and pickles. Recipes are simple and can be used on cold meats or even as a condiment for charcuterie…delicious!
To keep it even simpler, you can also use red wine vinegar in a gastrique sauce (caramelized sugar or honey mixed with equal parts vinegar), says Dominique. This is an easy-to-make “sweet-and-sour” topping or sauce for many kinds of dishes and can be further amplified with an extra ingredient (like citrus, berries, herbs, etc.). Gastrique sauce is an effortless way to bring culinary flourish to even the most mundane of meals.
For even more convenient kitchen use, try adding a few drops in a homemade mayonnaise (mixed in with your olive oil, egg yolk, and mustard). It adds just a glimmer of tangy, fruity flavor. In some cases, a little drizzling of red wine vinegar over finished vegetables or grain side dishes is positively delectable, according to Dominique. He is especially keen on adding a touch to a finished lentil dish — the acidity has a way of heightening its taste.
TURNING IT UP A NOTCH: ADVANCED RED WINE VINEGAR COOKERY
What else? For the more adventurous spirit (or culinary veteran), here are some bigger ways to challenge yourself with red wine vinegar.
Ambitious cooks can make it an illustrious ingredient in the orange sauce that accompanies orange duck. Per Dominique’s recommendations, make a vinegar reduction, then deglaze with orange juice, zest, and add duck broth afterward.
And, speaking of broths, Dominique is fond of red wine vinegar finding a home in these preparations, too. He specifically likes it in a “court-bouillon,” a broth made in advance to poaching fish or seafood.
For something a little different, use it with a fish escabeche recipe. To do this, boil vegetables (onions, garlic, and carrots) with lemon and red wine vinegar for 15 minutes. Then, pour atop your uncooked fish — the boiled water cooks and marinates it at the very same time, and it can be eaten either hot or cold! (More detailed recipes can be found online).
And another valuable tip from Dominique: use red wine vinegar (and thinly sliced shallots!) instead of lemon atop shucked oysters at your next oyster party.
So, next time you’re looking to impress with your cooking (or enhance it to a whole new culinary level), leave that balsamic vinegar up on the shelf for a change. Explore all that red wine vinegar can do— which is apparently a whole lot more than the average cook might know!