Cider Vinegar

Published September 1, 2006. From Cook's Illustrated.

You can spend six cents an ounce for a jug of generic apple cider vinegar-or 20 times more for the fancy stuff. Does it matter? We tasted 10 brands to find out.

Overview:

Update: August 2012

Since this story was published, our winner, Maille Apple Cider Vinegar has become difficult for most readers to find. The runner-up by Spectrum Naturals rated nearly equally highly and is widely available nationally, and is our new winner.

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In the grocery store, cider vinegar is often relegated to the bottom shelf alongside the inexpensive jugs of generic distilled white vinegar, far away from the prestigious balsamic and wine vinegars. Such humble posturing reflects apple cider vinegar's equally humble beginnings. Apples were once the most commonly cultivated fruit in this country, and, until the early 20th century, cider vinegar was a natural byproduct of America's favorite beverage: hard (alcoholic) cider. From Colonial times until refrigeration came along, most American homes kept a barrel of apple cider vinegar for preserving foods.

Even though cider vinegar is now used more for brightening sauces and salad dressings than staving off spoilage, most… read more

Update: August 2012

Since this story was published, our winner, Maille Apple Cider Vinegar has become difficult for most readers to find. The runner-up by Spectrum Naturals rated nearly equally highly and is widely available nationally, and is our new winner.

_________________________________________________________

In the grocery store, cider vinegar is often relegated to the bottom shelf alongside the inexpensive jugs of generic distilled white vinegar, far away from the prestigious balsamic and wine vinegars. Such humble posturing reflects apple cider vinegar's equally humble beginnings. Apples were once the most commonly cultivated fruit in this country, and, until the early 20th century, cider vinegar was a natural byproduct of America's favorite beverage: hard (alcoholic) cider. From Colonial times until refrigeration came along, most American homes kept a barrel of apple cider vinegar for preserving foods.

Even though cider vinegar is now used more for brightening sauces and salad dressings than staving off spoilage, most cooks still opt for the most generic brand possible. As supermarkets have begun to offer a more varied selection--some in the vinegar aisle, some in the "natural foods" section--we wondered if it was time to change our tune. To find out, we purchased 10 brands available in supermarkets or by mail—six produced domestically, three from France, and one from Canada.

Twenty-four tasters sampled them four ways: plain, in a Carolina-style barbecue sauce, in a pan sauce made with butter, cream, and shallots, and on romaine lettuce in a simple vinaigrette.

Fruitless Search

Right off the bat, it was plain that these were not identical products. Some vinegars were pale yellow, others deep gold, a few caramel colored. They also ranged from very cloudy to sparkling clear; one contained distinct reddish particles. Their tastes were varied, too, from slightly sweet and mellow to harsh and not sweet at all. The aroma and taste of apple were forthright in some, oddly missing in others.

Any hopes of a clear-cut victory along national lines were dashed as soon as the results were tallied. Of the two favorites, one was French, the other American. Could cloudiness or clarity be the winning factor? Cloudiness is a sign of unfiltered, unpasteurized vinegar, which still contains the "mother of vinegar," a gelatinous substance consisting of cellulose (plant fibers) and acetic bacteria (which ultimately produce vinegar). Clear vinegars are filtered. Again, tasters were split: One winner was clear, the other cloudy. Color? Wrong again: One was deep caramel, the other pale yellow.

Investigations into the manufacturing process proved similarly fruitless. Nine of the 10 vinegars are mass-produced in an acetator, a machine that can create 100 gallons of vinegar an hour. Only one vinegar was made in the traditional way, with cider left in wooden barrels for at least a year to ferment first into alcohol, then into vinegar. While a small but vocal minority of tasters sang the praises of the distinctive complexity lent by barrel fermentation, most were put off by this artisanal vinegar's astringent, "musty" qualities.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Our first important clue came not from the labels but from tasters' comments about what they liked about our winners. Praise abounded for the "sweet honey and caramel" notes of the first-place winner and the "appley sweetness" of the runner-up. From the top brand to the bottom, sweetness--or lack thereof— was clearly an overriding concern for tasters. We sent all 10 vinegars to a laboratory to be analyzed for sugar content. Two weeks later, the lab reports arrived, and the results cleared things up considerably. High sugar content correlated directly with taster preference.

Are some vinegar makers adding sugar to the mix to satisfy the American sweet tooth? Not quite. The conversion of apple cider to vinegar is simply stopped before all the natural sugars are fermented. For instance, a vinegar maker catering to the French palate--which favors a drier, more tannic (and musty) profile--might let the fermentation continue undisturbed until almost all of the sugars have been converted. The results from our tasting indicate that a manufacturer catering to the American palate would be wise to leave some of the sugars intact.

There was one exception to the "sweeter is better" rule; this vinegar had plenty of sugar but did not fare so well. Some manufacturers, when a batch of vinegar turns out poorly, will filter it to make it taste better. Filtering also makes the vinegar more appealing to consumers who associate a clear product with a pure one. But filtering, which removes apple solids and the mother of vinegar, also strips out much of the apple flavor. So sweetness counts when it comes to apple cider vinegar, but even generous sugar levels can't make up for a lack of apple flavor, a byproduct of filtering.

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