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From salad dressings to marinades, there are plenty of way to incorporate vinegar into your favorite dishes.

No matter what your palate preferences, it’s likely that your cabinet is stocked with at least one type of vinegar. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to name a more versatile product. For thousands of years throughout the world—stretching all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia around 5000 BC—vinegar has been used for everything from a cold remedy to an all-purpose cleaning product.

But even strictly looking at its culinary applications, the uses of vinegar are widely varied. Derived from the French word vin aigre, vinegar means sour wine — a reference to the process by which it’s made. A sour liquid, vinegar is typically created by alcohol, such as wine, malted barley or cider, which has been fermented. When it comes to cooking, wine, rice and balsamic vinegars are among the most commonly used. Balsamic vinegar has its own creation process: Traditional balsamic is produced from grape must in the Reggio Emilia and Modena regions in Italy. Th e grape must is cooked and then fermented and aged through a series of increasingly smaller barrels over 12-18 years.

You can find various types of vinegar at any supermarket. Plus, there also are a few specialty retailers throughout the islands that carry higher-end barrel-aged balsamics sourced from Italy. O‘ahu-based Balsamic Hawaii and Big Island-based Hawaii Balsamics both sell a range of balsamics at farmers markets on their respective islands. Island Olive Oil, meanwhile, carries balsamics as well as wine and champagne vinegars with shops at Ward Centre and in Kailua.

WAYS TO EAT IT

Probably everybody has dipped bread into a mixture of balsamic vinegar and olive oil at an Italian restaurant. And while that certainly is tasty, the uses of vinegar go far beyond that. Here are just some of the ways that vinegar can enhance your next home-cooked meal.

AS A SALAD DRESSING

One of the most popular applications for vinegar is to use it as a light, healthy alternative to salad dressing.

For an easy concoction, try a bit of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. If you’re pouring each of them on separately, though, Dallas Carter Jr., owner of Balsamic Hawaii, offers a pro tip: “You always want to put the balsamic on your salad first. If you put oil on first … the (vinegar) just drips offto the side.”

According to Ange?l Vardas, who co-owns Island Olive Oil with Brian Foster, wine vinegars make for the best dressings. For Greek salads, she says red wine vinegar, which has a sharp taste, works well. For Italian dressing, she suggests using the softer white wine vinegar, and for a French vinaigrette, the light champagne vinegar.

“I love French vinaigrette, so I will add some of our mustard, champagne vinegar and one of our premium olive oils and I will make a perfect vinaigrette with that,” Vardas explains.

AS A MARINADE

Marinating fish or meat in vinegar can add complexity to the dish. As with red wine, red wine vinegar often tends to be paired with steaks, while white wine varieties may be used more often with chicken or fish. As it cooks, the vinegar thickens to create a glaze.

“What is nice about marinating meat with vinegar is that it helps to break down the proteins, so it tenderizes it,” Vardas explains.

Vardas prefers dark balsamics as marinades. She recommends Island Olive Oil’s espresso-infused dark balsamic for steak, and the blackberry ginger balsamic for a pork chop or salmon. White balsamics, which are a bit more acidic and tangy, work well for seafood.

“They are sweet and tart; they are really nice with marinating things like fish or shrimp,” Vardas says of the white balsamics.

One of Carter’s favorite uses for balsamics is to marinate a white fish— ‘opakapaka, tilapia or flounder all work well, he says. He often goes with a raspberry-infused balsamic with a bit of olive oil.

“If you brush it on before cooking, and then put a little bit on after you cook it, as it bakes, the sweetness of the balsamic cooks out,” Carter says. “And because it cooks out, it’s just right, not too sweet, and it has a really nice taste to it.”

AS A SWEETNER

With a sweet/sour flavor, balsamic vinegar also can function as a sweeter with a number of applications.

Vardas likes to add dark balsamics—oftentimes raspberry or blueberry infused ones—to plain Greek yogurt or smoothies in place of honey.

“(Island Olive Oil’s) balsamics, because there are no sweeteners added, they are very low in sugar,” she says.

And if you’re looking to accent desserts, or to make a serving of fresh fruit a bit decadent, balsamics can come in handy there, too.

Vardas, for example, has created a glaze for pumpkin cheesecake by cooking a cinnamon pear dark balsamic in a skillet until it begins to bubble. “Or you can do berries with a little bit of balsamic over vanilla ice cream — it’s a real luxurious type of dessert with a kind of sweet and tart flavor,” she adds.

TO ADD JUST ABOUT ANYTHING

If you haven’t seen anything that you’d like to try here, know that you probably can’t go wrong when it comes to adding vinegar to a dish.

Wine vinegars or balsamics, of the lighter variety in particular, also can help to bring the sweetness out of your favorite fruit.

“White balsamics are really beautiful for drizzling over fruit,” Vardas explains. “In the way you would squeeze a lemon over papaya to bring out that juiciness of it, you can do the same thing with a white balsamic.”

Rice vinegar, with a sweet-and-sourness that’s milder than other vinegars, can be used to accent things like a Chinese stir-fry. Apple cider vinegar often is used to brighten a fruit salad. Generally, any balsamic also can add a little extra flavor to grilled or pan-fried veggies.

Vardas also often uses wine vinegar to add a bit of acidity to soup.

“On a lentil soup or a vegetable soup, just add a little drizzle of that on the top,” she explains. “It really brings the flavors together and it balances out the flavors. Th e wine vinegar is just a really nice finish to the dish.”

ON ITS OWN

In Italy, premium balsamics—which can run up to a couple hundred dollars per bottle—are meant to be enjoyed on their own, often as a digestif.

“You might have a couple drops on a nice piece of Parmesan cheese, or just a little spoon of it,” Vardas explains. “It’s a little special thing that you would have as an after-dinner palate cleanser.”

HEALTH BENEFITS

Several years ago, before she discovered the many uses of balsamic vinegar, Hawaii Balsamics owner Tamar Gilson was having digestive issues. She started eating balsamic as a way to help with her digestion—it’s a probiotic—and she found that it also had another major benefit.

“It helped me eat a little bit better by encouraging me to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Gilson explains.

That’s why Gilson wanted to make high-quality balsamics available for everyone.

“There is a direct correlation between what we take into our bodies and what we get out of our body. My mission in this business is to help others avoid the health issues that they would otherwise get by not eating properly,” she explains.

Vinegars of all kinds are associated with health benefits like helping to manage blood sugar and keep cholesterol low. While many health professionals argue that the actual health impacts of vinegar may be inflated, many enthusiasts point out that, at the very least, vinegar can dress up dishes to help you consume healthier foods more often.

Like Gilson, Carter also credits eating balsamic vinegar with facilitating his journey into a healthier lifestyle. In the last 10 years, Carter has lost 200 pounds.

“Part of that process of weight loss had to do with the fact that I ate a lot of salad and very healthy dishes—and I livened it up with olive oil and balsamic,” he explains. “I am not going to go as far as saying that it was the reason I lost weight or anything, but it definitely fit into a healthy lifestyle. It helped me want to eat healthier, and it helped me maintain a healthy diet.”