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This week’s question comes from Nancy Lawson of Sykesville, MD, who wants to know:

“I started to wonder about [wine vinegar] because I assumed that, given the roots of the word ‘vinegar,’ all vinegar was made from wine. The term ‘wine vinegar’ seemed redundant to me….This is probably a very stupid question, but all of this got me very interested in vinegar b/c now I know how tasty it can be! And also, I would like to know, what else can I do with different kinds and flavors of vinegars? What are good uses for it?”

Nancy, you are so correct in your etymology, if not your assumptions, about vinegar. The word “vinegar,” according to the Food Lover’s Companion, is derived “from the French vin aigre,” which means “sour wine.” But there’s a reason you find all sorts of adjectives attached to vinegars—-apple-cider vinegar, fruit vinegar, malt vinegar, rice vinegar, and the like. It’s because each vinegar begins with a different base ingredient. For example, distilled white vinegar often comes from a grain-alcohol base.

Wine vinegars, of course, come from the grapes used to make vino. The good wine vinegars, those based on specific varietals, tend to have less acidity and less pungency than distilled white vinegars; they also have more flavor, as you learned when using one to make a killer vinaigrette.

But you can use wine vinegars in many other ways.

“I use them a lot to finish up my soups. I think a little vinegar at the end kind of helps,” says Jason Mousseau, sous chef at Firefly. “And definitely on top of proteins and entrees. A little dash of vinegar is like a squeeze of lemon or a lime, you know what I mean?”

Mousseau is particularly fond of sherry vinegar, which he uses for pureed soups (and some broth soups) to “give it that balance, kind of like an Asian thing: the salty and the sweet and the vinegary and the spicy, kind of all together.” He’ll also use wine vinegars for “quick pickled things,” like perhaps a fast pickling of cabbage slices, which can then serve as an accompaniment to your entrée. You can take a little wine vinegar, sugar, and some aromatic spice (like star anise seeds) and sauté your veggies in a pot for five minutes.

“It just takes a little crunch off the veggie and gives it a little background,” Mousseau says. “It’s something nice to eat with a piece of fish or a chicken breast or something normal that people are eating at home.”

Robert Weland, the chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Penn Quarter, is such a fan of vinegar that he used to make his own. Like Mousseau, he uses wine vinegars to make gastriques, which are merely thick sauces reduced from a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and sometimes fruit. Weland has a smoked squab on his fall menu in which the bird, first cold-smoked and then roasted to medium rare, is served with a gastrique of sherry wine vinegar, shallots, and honey.

“Vinegars to me have always been used to brighten things up,” Weland says. “Whether it’s lemon juice or a white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar, it always brightens up a sauce or brightens up a soup, especially this time of year.”

In the end, Weland says, Nancy “shouldn’t be afraid of it, and she should try new things. There’s a million different applications, really.”

A few of them can be found on the Vinegar Institute’s Uses & Tips page.

Hungry? Curious? Itchy? Send your most intimate questions about dining or anything else to asktim@washcp.com, and a real-live food critic will answer them!