Sweet benefits to using vinegar

Sour liquid refines our palates, creates contrast, expert says

December 06, 2006|By Robin Mather Jenkins | Robin Mather Jenkins,Chicago Tribune

Without a little sour, one can't appreciate the sweet.

So says Lawrence J. Diggs, who calls himself "the vinegar man" and is the curator of the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, S.D.

"It's hard to say why we love vinegary tastes," Diggs said. "The brain uses sourness to make sense of many of the scents we smell. It's as if the brain needs that contrast as a palette to paint the rest of our tastes on. It's hard to tell where the evolution comes from; is it just our genetic code?"

Something about vinegar enchants us. Vinegar sales have been rising since 1993, and sales topped $200 million in 2004, the Vinegar Institute in Atlanta reported. It predicts sales of more than $415 million by 2010.

Balsamic vinegar made up nearly half of all sales in North America, according to Mintel Custom Solutions Data, which gathered the data for the Vinegar Institute. But other new flavors and types keep appearing to sit on shelves once stocked with only cider and white varieties.

Vinegar, the word, derives from the French vin aigre, or "sour wine."

"It's what wine wants to be," Diggs said. Wine sours because oxygen oxidizes it, creating a friendly environment for the ubiquitous bacteria called Acetobacter. As the bacteria consume the alcohol, they convert it to acetic acid.

Although there's some argument about it, Diggs said, most vinegar specialists believe that a sugary juice of some kind first must ferment into alcohol before becoming vinegar.

"Vinegars can be made from anything that has enough sugar or starch in it," Diggs said. "We can make vinegars out of fruits like raspberries and pineapples, out of root crops like potatoes and beets and onions. We can make it out of animal products such as honey or milk and out of tree saps like maple syrup. Or grasses, like cane."

Many cultures have sweet-and-sour dishes that use some form of vinegar to balance other components in the dish's flavor. Perhaps that's because vinegar has been with us as long as wine, and maybe longer.

If vinegar's origins are ancient, so, too, are vinegar's uses in the kitchen. Some people theorize that our love of tart, sour foods comes from centuries of eating pickled foods - foods pickled to preserve them out of season - and now we eat them just because we like them. But Diggs disputed that as the reason why humans love vinegar's tang.

"Look at the four reasons why we use vinegar in food processing at home and in industry," Diggs said. "It's an excellent food preservative. At a strength of 5 percent acetic acid, it kills all the organisms that cause food-borne illness and decay." That's the logic behind the vinegar-based brines in pickling, he said.

But its premier use, he said, is to provide the base for the brain to process flavor.

The taste for sour foods "does seem to be universal. I don't know anywhere where the taste of sour isn't incorporated. The `su' in `sushi' means `vinegared.' Vinegar allows the Japanese to bring out flavors in otherwise bland food."

Robin Mather Jenkins writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Chicken in Vinegar

Serves 6

This recipe, adapted from one of Jacques Pepin's, represents a French classic. A cut-up fryer is browned, then braised in vinegar and water. The vinegar tenderizes the chicken and gives it an intriguing twist.

1 frying chicken, about 4 to 4 1/2 pounds, cut into 8 pieces

1 teaspoon salt (divided use)

freshly ground pepper

1/2 stick ( 1/4 cup) butter (divided use)

1/2 cup red-wine vinegar (divided use)

1/4 cup water

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon

Sprinkle the chicken pieces with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and pepper to taste. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat; add chicken pieces skin side down, in batches if necessary.

Cook, turning often, until golden brown, about 10 minutes per batch. Return chicken to skillet.

Add 1/4 cup of the vinegar and water to the skillet; cover. Cook until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter.

Add the garlic to the skillet; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of the vinegar; increase heat to medium-high. Heat to a boil, scraping up any browned bits in the skillet; stir in the tomato paste, remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the skillet from the heat; whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 teaspoon at a time. Pour the sauce over the chicken; sprinkle with the parsleyPer serving: 571 calories, 38 grams fat, 13 grams saturated fat, 190 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram carbohydrate, 54 grams protein, 627 milligrams sodium, trace fiber

Recipe analysis provided by the Chicago Tribune.

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