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Vinegar is one of the most ancient natural fermentations used by people. It can be produced from a variety of materials : fruits, berries, honey, beer, malts, grains, whatever the main ingredient is, the principle is the same: the natural sugar contained in these products ferments into alcohol and the alcohol ferments again to become acetic acid. For as long as un-distilled alcoholic beverages have existed, vinegar has existed too.
Babylonians used vinegar as a condiment and preservative, the Romans as a beverage. Supposedly Cleopatra put some pearls into a jar of vinegar where they soon dissolved, she drank it too, claiming she could consume a fortune in a gulp and also demonstrating vinegar's solvent properties. Hippocrates realized vinegar's potential in medicine for its antiseptic, soothing and solvent qualities (ideal to seep medicinal herbs in). Nothing has changed much after all these centuries, vinegar is still used for basically the same things; according to my grandmother no household should be without vinegar as it helps to ward off the evil eye. (if that isn't added value then I don't know what is)
Vinegars are classified according to what they are made of: apple or cider vinegars, grape or wine vinegars, berry, rice, malt, cereal and sugar vinegars and spirit or distilled vinegars.
Vinegar starter or "mother" is a substance naturally occurring in vinegar, produced by harmless bacteria. You will never find the "mother" floating in commercial vinegars as these have been pasteurized, but don't worry if you find it in a more "rustic" home-made vinegar, simply filter it and consume the vinegar, it is not a sign of spoilage as vinegar is self preserving. However , never even attempt to pickle with a vinegar of less than 4% acidity, the threshold under which it is not enough strong enough to preserve the stuff it is added to.
Vinegar can be flavored with any number of herbs and spices: garlic, tarragon, basil, cloves, nutmeg, peppers; fruit vinegars can be used alone or mixed with white wine, raspberry wine is sweet and sour, perfect for marinades; rice vinegar is mild, light and transparent, essential in Asian cooking; white wine vinegar is clear and pale, acid but should smell like wine.
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