Flavored vinegars add zest to everything from salads and stews to marinades and meats.
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for one, believes no kitchen is complete without them. The colorful array of homemade-flavored vinegars in his kitchens at Vong, Jo Jo and the Lipstick Cafe restaurants in New York are testament to Mr. Vongerichten's "a spritz here and a shake there" philosophy that defines his signature dishes.
While flavored vinegars can be expensive in the marketplace (about $16 for a 16-ounce bottle), thrifty gourmets can make their own at home for a fraction of the cost. Packaged imaginatively, they make great gifts.
There are three basic vinegars: cider vinegar, which tastes of fruity apples and has a strong bite; distilled or white vinegar, a colorless vinegar made from grains with an acidic taste, and wine vinegars, the color and flavor of which depend on the type of wine used.
Try tasting the vinegars first to become familiar with their distinctly different flavors, either straight, diluted or on sugar cubes. (No matter which method you follow, cleanse your palate with some celery or bread and water before new tastings.) For straight, simply pour a small quantity in a wine glass, swill and swallow. To dilute, mix 1 teaspoon vinegar with 2 tablespoons of good bottled water. Or try dipping a sugar cube quickly into a small glass of the vinegar and then sucking out the vinegar.
The flavors for vinegars fall into five general categories: herb, fruit, spice, vegetable and blends. (Keep in mind that wine vinegars are a good match for herbs and spices; cider vinegars also complement spices. Distilled vinegars go best with fruits and edible flowers.)
To get started, check out your local market for fragrant bunches of herbs, fresh fruits, sprigs of spices and garden vegetables.
There are two ways to "cook" your vinegars.
* Infused: This method is the most involved, as it requires heating the vinegar; pouring it over the selected flavoring; covering it with cheesecloth; letting it stand in a dark, warm place, such as a kitchen cupboard, for two weeks to mellow the flavors; filtering it through the cheesecloth; and pouring it into the bottles.
* Noninfused: This method simply involves pouring the vinegar directly over the ingredients in the chosen bottle, and letting it stand in a warm, dark spot for at least three weeks before use to allow time for a natural infusion of aromatic flavoring.
Note: Since vinegar is corrosive, don't use metal utensils. Use plastic instead. Stir with wooden spoons and use only lids made of cork or plastic and pots made of stainless steel.