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Vinegar is among the world’s oldest prepared foods. The Chinese have been making rice vinegar for more than 3,000 years.

It can be a luxurious ingredient (aged balsamic and sherry vinegars command high prices), and a practical one – vinegar can add flavour to salads, tenderize meats, preserve pickles and make sauces shine. Importantly, vinegar also perks up flavours. A few drops can rescue a dish that may seem a little underwhelming.

Red wine vinegar and its lighter, less commonly used counterpart, white wine vinegar, are among the most basic and versatile of vinegars. But they also have the highest levels of acidity – pucker power. Commercial brands are usually around 5-per-cent acidity, and traditionally prepared wine vinegar can be as high as 7 per cent. Mix it with caution in salad dressings so as not to overwhelm the other ingredients. Also, keep its acidity in mind when selecting a wine to pair with your dish.

Rice vinegar, made from fermented rice, is most commonly associated with Asian cooking, but it adds a nice touch to many Western dishes as both a finishing vinegar and for less-sharp pickling. It is less acidic (about 4 per cent) and has a sweeter, milder taste.

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There are several types of rice vinegar. Japanese rice vinegar is a subtle, very low acidity golden vinegar; seasoned Japanese rice vinegar is preseasoned with sugar and salt, often used to flavour sushi rice; and there are three Chinese vinegars: red, a curious mix of sweet and sour flavours, used in sauces and noodle dishes, white, the most acidic of the three, used for sweet and sour dishes and pickling, and black, a rich vinegar that works well with braised dishes. Substitute black with balsamic.

Apple cider vinegar is made from crushed apples, sugar and yeast, it is fermented, strained and bottled. The vinegar is best for making pickles and in salad dressings.

Balsamic vinegar originates in Modena, Italy, and the best ones are still made there. Artisans reduce white grapes to a syrup, and then keep the resulting “must” in wooden barrels. A small quantity of older balsamic vinegar is added to encourage acetification. It is kept for a minimum of 12 years; each year, the vinegar is moved to a smaller barrel made of a different kind of wood. As you can imagine, this intensive process adds up to a very high price for authentic balsamic vinegar (to confirm authenticity, look for the codes API MO or API RE on the bottle, indicating that the vinegar was made in Modena or Reggio). There is no comparison in taste between the real thing and the commercial imitation. Moderately priced commercial balsamic is fine for everyday cooking. Many of them are essentially wine vinegar sweetened with sugars, but their sweeter, less acidic taste still makes them an excellent choice for dishes that might be overwhelmed by too much acid. Salad dressings and sauces are their best use.

Spain has been making sherry vinegar for at least 500 years, and it is a process that has been honed to an art. Sherry vinegar is the result of painstaking efforts and a highly refined process. It is regarded by many as the finest of vinegars. Sherry vinegars are traditionally aged between 30 and 75 years, and high-quality sherry vinegar is more expensive than sherry itself. It is sweet with a sharp, sour aftertaste that is excellent in sauces and salads.

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