From apple cider to red wine, these are the vinegars you should keep stocked in your pantry.

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Credit: Con Poulos

Acerbic, aromatic, and nose-wrinklingly useful, vinegar is the under-appreciated condiment that can assert or retreat, adding body by the cup or by the discreet teaspoonful in any recipe. The type of vinegar you choose to use when cooking is as much about the dish you are preparing as it is about the source ingredient from which that vinegar is made. Vinegar is the tart result of a particular kind of fermentation. Exposing a fermented or fermenting alcoholic beverage to oxygen creates the conditions that bacteria called Acetobacter love: They metabolize the ethanol in alcohol and release acetic acid. Hello, vinegar.

As Sandor Katz explains in The Art of Fermentation ($24.29, amazon.com), "Wine will yield wine vinegar; cider will yield cider vinegar; beer will yield malt vinegar; rice-based alcohols will yield rice vinegar." The flavor variations of vinegars are drawn from those source-liquids, and the quality of their ingredients. But vinegar does not have to be made from a fully fermented alcohol; any sweet solution that can be made into alcohol can yield vinegar. In early spring you can use viburnum flower to make vinegar; in the early summer, try making elderflower vinegar—remember to first ferment the flowers with sugar to a delightfully fizzy stage. Some people make mead vinegar with honey and water. The list of combinations you can draw on is dizzying, once the vinegar-making bug bites you.

Vinegar is extremely versatile, pairing beautifully with any kind of fat—from butter to coconut cream—in sauces and substantial adobo-style dishes, marinating summer's ribs and adding life to winter's comforting beans. It gives low alcohol-by-volume drinks substance and backbone. It even works with dessert—a tablespoonful of red wine vinegar sprinkled over perfect strawberries is unforgettably good. Here, we address five common vinegars and discuss their differences and uses.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Made from cider, fruity apple cider vinegar is a medium-acidic vinegar that creates luscious pan sauces for roasted chicken, fatty pork chops, and duck breasts—swirl a tablespoon into the hot pan after the meat has cooked and is resting. It has an affinity for juices (add seltzer to make a refreshing drink), for pears and apples, nuts, and bitter salad leaves like endive and chicories. Don't forget to pair it with walnut oil when you whisk it to the point of emulsifying. Apple cider vinegar is also rewardingly easy to make at home. All you need are apples—or apple scraps—sugar, and water. Well, that and a little patience.

White and Red Wine Vinegars

Fermented from red and white wine, these lean vinegars are kitchen workhorses. White wine vinegar breaths sharp life into everything from mayonnaise, spur-of-the-moment quick pickles, and classic beurre blanc to a slow-cooked and unctuous Lyonnaise chicken dish where the vinegar is reduced heavily and tempered at at the end with a slosh of cream. It is also typically used with white fish, shellfish, chicken, and rabbit (so if you're thinking of drinking white with the meal, use white wine vinegar when cooking it).

More robust red wine vinegar is traditional with red meats, beans, and lentils. It balances the gaminess of darker-fleshed fish like mackerel and bluefish, and is surprisingly good sprinkled sparingly over soft summer fruits.

Sherry Vinegars

Because sherry is a white wine fortified with brandy and aged in oak, and because sherry vinegar itself is matured in barrels, sherry vinegar is more voluptuous than wine vinegars. Its complexity fills the missing corners in cold soups like gazpacho and ajo blanco, and it's a quick improvement for slow-cooked beefy stews that need a rich acid counterbalance to their meatiness. Toasty and nutty, sherry vinegar also makes assertive salad dressing, especially for root and leaf vegetables with strong personalities: think radish, celeriac, beets, and brassicas.

Malt Vinegar

Ever had English-style fish and chips? They would not be complete without a serious shower of amber malt vinegar across the golden chips—be sure to use enough to make them just slightly soggy. Ale—made from malted barley (meaning the barley is germinated and toasted) and sometimes other grains—is the basis for malt vinegar. The vinegar makes wonderful onion pickles, is a traditional ingredient in a South African sausage called boerewors (where it tames the richness of fatty ground lamb spiced with coriander), and is of course best friends with potatoes. Toss them hot in a generous amount of malt vinegar seasoned heavily with salt, sugar, and loads of scallion greens and dill.

Rice Vinegar

Often called rice wine vinegar, this generally mellow vinegar is made from fermented rice, rice wines, or the lees of sake. The character of rice vinegars varies widely based on its region of origin, the rice used, details of fermentation, and whether or not the vinegar is aged. Rice vinegar color and flavor profiles run from pale to dark, sour to earthy. Pale and clear vinegars tend to be tarter, while the most earthily complex are black. The lighter vinegars make delicately tart marinades for lightly cooked vegetables, fish and grilled pork dishes. Dark rice vinegars work better as dips for dumplings or in the marinades and sauces for hearty meat dishes like ribs.

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