Kitchn Love Letters

The Unexpected Vinegar I Love Using in My Homemade Salad Dressings (Buh-Bye, Balsamic)

published Jul 6, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

When it comes to culinary vinegars, balsamic pretty much has a monopoly on the genre. And I get it: It’s good with just about everything. But if I had to choose just one vinegar for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be balsamic — not by a long shot! Hear me out on this one: The variety you really need to stock up on is malt vinegar.

Unlike balsamic or wine vinegars, which is made from grapes, malt vinegar is processed from barley. The grains are “malted” by getting a soak in water. Once they germinate, they’re dried, then brewed into ale. You could stop here and drink some beer, or distill it into whiskey. But in the case of vinegar, the ale is fermented again, and finally aged for flavor. The result is a vinegar that’s caramel-y and rich, like a good glass of Scotch. But because it’s double-fermented, it’s also super bright and acidic, like lemon pudding. It’s the perfect combination of flavors, and it’s so delicious.

It’s this complex flavor profile that makes it my favorite vinegar for everything. In the United Kingdom, it’s most commonly used as a condiment for fish and chips, but I think malt vinegar really shines when it’s part of a sauce or salad dressing. 

My favorite way to use it is in a gastrique type of sauce: I just simmer a tablespoon or two of brown sugar with half a cup of malt vinegar until the sugar is dissolved. Then, I add in a few big handfuls of chopped mint and let it sit at room temperature for half an hour. (A traditional gastrique is reduced, and often includes the browned bits from a pan, but this cheater’s version is much easier and just as impressive.) It’s beyond amazing drizzled over grilled meat, like lamb or steak, or stirred into a warm grain bowl.

Malt vinegar is also brilliant in salad dressings with a little Dijon mustard and your favorite olive oil. If you have hazelnut or walnut oil on hand, that’d be even better. The malty nuttiness also makes it a good choice for pickled veggies; it’s less sharp and “prickly” than your average wine vinegar, and much less sour than apple cider vinegar.

One thing to note: Because it’s made from barley, malt vinegar is definitely not gluten-free, which means it’s not safe for those with Celiac’s disease or gluten intolerances.

Where to buy malt vinegar? Many grocers stock it in the “European foods” aisle, or along with the other vinegars. It’s also available online. My favorite brand is London Pub (can’t you just imagine the scent of fried fish and chips wafting through the air?), but Heinz makes a great bottle as well. And unlike those high-quality balsamic vinegars out there, both brands are ridiculously inexpensive.

Do you stock malt vinegar in your pantry? What’s your favorite way to use it?