Once upon a time, vinegar mostly came in two types, cider and distilled. If you looked around, you might find red wine vinegar, maybe even white wine or rice wine vinegar.
Then the foodie explosion of the 1970s led to all sorts of doctored vinegars. Vinegar appeals to the kitchen tinkerer because it can't spoil, so you can add flavorings to it without risk. Why not throw in mint or basil or sage? Garlic, hot chilies, tangerine peel?
Great fun. And then came the fruit vinegars. A couple of years back, the words "raspberry vinegar" were splattered all over every self-respecting restaurant menu.
Finally we got to the hard stuff, balsamic vinegar, and it has been a balsamic world ever since. Balsamic vinegar is made from concentrated grape juice, and behind its sharpness there's a gentle sweetness. Clearly it has what a lot of people were really looking for in a vinegar -- rich flavor combined with an acidity level that doesn't punish the mouth.
But we already had a vinegar of that description decades earlier: tarragon vinegar, a staple in gourmet pantries of the 1940s and '50s. The sweet, licoricelike flavor of tarragon neatly tames the power of acetic acid while adding a perfume of its own.
How it reduces the sharp impression of acetic acid is kind of a mystery. Food science writer Harold McGee points out that tarragon does contain some sugar, about 4 percent by weight, but this doesn't explain the tarragon effect by itself.
However tarragon works its magic, the resulting vinegar is more versatile than balsamic. One day I had two slices of country ham, so I decided to make a sort of shepherd's pie; or, rather, swineherd's pie, I suppose. I fried up a bunch of onions with the ham, put the mixture in a pan and covered it with mashed potatoes. It was good; it was perfectly fine. But a few drops of tarragon vinegar put it over the top.
But balsamic vinegar would have ruined it. Like a powerful red wine, balsamic vinegar easily can overwhelm a dish. Tarragon vinegar has better manners.
Charles Perry is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.