Sometimes, one small thing can make all the difference — a kind word, a drop of rain, a good laugh…and a single ingredient.
From time to time, I’d like to highlight “secret ingredients,” those magic kitchen elements, be they potion, powder, or plant that, even in small amounts, ratchet up a recipe from so-so to just right.
It might not even take much (a few drops of liquid smoke in green beans) or make sense (a little grated nutmeg in cream sauce for au gratin potatoes) or be noticed (coffee in chocolate anything), but even just a wee bit can be key to cooking success.
Apple cider vinegar may be the biggest wonder of them all. A year-round staple in many a pantry (the fact that it doesn’t require fridge storage is another bonus), I knew about its acidic potency early in my mom’s cooking, from her creamy coleslaw dressing to pickling brine. She bought the stuff in gallon jugs and decanted it into a small cut-glass carafe set out on the dinner table to drizzle over stewed greens.
I also always keep apple cider vinegar at the ready. A splash of it in a pinch will turn plain milk into buttermilk, add tart to the fruit in a morning smoothie, work as a cleansing hair rinse or a multipurpose cleaner for everything from countertops to coffee cups with stubborn stains. Many believe in its medicinal powers and take a shot, straight, daily (or make it more palatable in water with honey or sweetener).
The health benefits of apple cider have been known and touted throughout the ages, and it was prescribed as early as 400 B.C. It’s been used to treat everything from wounds to the common cold. In her book, “The Apple Cider Vinegar Companion: Simple Ways to Use Nature’s Miracle Cure” (The Countryman Press; 2016), author Suzy Scherr, says the best health benefits come from the raw, unpasteurized (and more cloudy-looking) versions of the elixir.
Vinegar (from the French vin aigre, meaning “sour wine”) is formed through a fermentation process. Maybe an apple a day in the form of cider-y vinegar does keep the doctor away, as Scherr notes, it is “all-natural, inexpensive, antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, fat-burning, cholesterol-lowering, immunity-boosting.”
Keeping apple cider vinegar handy also offers a staggering array of rescuing boosts for cooking and baking. I’ve used as little as two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to add twang and tang to a Sloppy Joe recipe (shared here) to as much as two cups for an oven-baked apple butter. Here are some other ways to consider putting it to good use:
Drinks — In Scherr’s book, she shares a recipe for a homemade sports drink by combining coconut water, lime juice, apple cider vinegar, sea salt, and raw honey to chill and keep on hand on hot days or when exercising. Apple cider vinegar can be made into a hot beverage with lemon and honey and sipped like tea, or splashed into cold beverages, like lemonade. Add apple cider vinegar to your next apple cider punch or hot apple cider drink.
Pickling — Pickling with apple cider vinegar is one of my favorite uses (this summer, I’ve been pickling radishes and baby carrots). Quick pickling takes the daunting aspects of cooking and canning out of pickling (just remember to store your finished product in the fridge). A basic quick pickling brine consists of one cup water and one cup vinegar, one tablespoon salt and one tablespoon sugar. Customize the brine with herbs and spices.
Salads and Veggies — Many a salad dressing or vinaigrette gets its zing from apple cider vinegar, which has been at the base of everything from buttermilk ranch to honey mustard dressings. A drizzle of apple cider can be a pick-me-up to cooked or roasted veggies, such as carrots or green beans, a pot of ham and beans or lentil stew or sautéed collard greens or Swiss chard.
Meats, Marinades, and Sauces — I don’t think barbecue sauce would taste like barbecue sauce without tangy apple cider vinegar, and many a meat has benefited from a marinade enhanced with vinegar, too, as the acids in vinegar helps to tenderize. Vinegar is used in other common condiments, too…just read the label of your mayo, mustard, and ketchup!
Fruit — Apples and pears in particular can be enhanced with apple cider vinegar. It brightens and energizes fruit flavors. Try poaching pears in a liquid of apple cider vinegar, honey, and spices (like star anise and cinnamon sticks). Or use a little in cooked apple pie filling.
Baking — Apple cider vinegar can add fluffy lift and tenderness (oftentimes reacting with baking soda) to baked goods, too, in everything from cookies, donuts, muffins, overnight waffles, cake, and pie pastry.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Oven Apple Butter Recipe