It’s not easy to write a book about food which adds something new — be that discourse or recipes. You’ve probably worked that out already when browsing through a bookshop, picking up, flicking through, and then putting down yet more of the same.
So well done to Angela Clutton, whose The Vinegar Cupboard absolutely adds value. This is not a subject matter that you knew you needed or wanted covered, but should you read the book you’ll find an interesting topic engagingly and practically covered, and a reference point for years to come.
Though in the intro the author (all too humbly) states that she doesn’t present this as an encyclopaedia or textbook, this book is an impressively thorough investigation of vinegars, with a scattering of recipes which demonstrate their usefulness as an ingredient (rather than a cookbook scattered with background snippets). It considers the history of vinegars across cultures, the science of acetic fermentation, and the role of acidity in cooking — of how vinegars bring balance, flavour and an essential sharpness. The aim, clearly, is to demonstrate that vinegar is not a generic ingredient, but something of great variety and nuance.
Don’t let all this geekery put you off … not only is the author an excellent writer, smart, thorough, and interested rather than all-knowing and patronising, she’s practical too. We learn how to use vinegars in the kitchen, in quick pickles, marinades, roasts, bakes, seasonings, dressings and drinks. Here are the building blocks of dressings and pan deglazes, as well as specific sauces and recipes. It’s worth studying the flavour wheels which present the differing characteristics of vinegars.
After an introductory discussion of the topic, the book is broken down into four sections: fruit and balsamic vinegars; sherry, wine and cider vinegars; grain vinegars; and extracted and infused vinegars. In each of these, the author looks in detail at specific vinegars, then shows how they might be used when cooking. Recipes are a mix of the well-established (dressings, things like gazpacho, boquerones en vinaigre, pickled pearl onions to go with your Gibson Martini) and unexpected (reduce a little wine vinegar in an egg pan before splashing that over your fried breakfast eggs? Serve warm oysters with tarragon butter and balsamic? Fancy braised pig’s cheeks with cherry vinegar and liquorice?)
There’s detail regarding lesser known vinegars, and also of named ingredients we liberally band around and splash, but maybe need to know more about— be that Italian balsamics or Chinese and Japanese rice and grain vinegars. It’s all very considered and useful. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that, though there’s basic instruction, the author doesn’t wholeheartedly promote making your own wine vinegars — a home-artisan trend that’s threatened to break but not quite broken through over the last few years. However I think this also points to her honesty: why recommend doing something, when in reality you prefer to seek out products of dependable quality, made by experts.
This is a niche book, but it’s unique, enjoyable and has an admirable message and cause: understanding acidity is vital to cooking well, and this provides a great way into that topic.
Format and design
Classic crown quarto shape (so it’ll fit on your shelf). Manages to make something that’s text heavy but interspersed with recipes work as both an item to read and a book to cook from. Neat flavour wheels and other graphics help to convey the author’s message in a clear and thought-provoking way .
Recipes that tempt
Pot roasted brisket with balsamic and honey; soused sardines; balsamic ripple ice cream.
Who is it for?
Though everyone from novice to expert would find this book useful and interesting, no doubt it’s keen and interested cooks who’ll gravitate towards it. The recipes are very accessible, covering well-establised ideas as well as quirky and unexpected ones. The text should will serve as a reference.