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Rice Vinegar - Chinese Seasonings

Chinese rice vinegar offers a sweeter, delicate alternative to regular vinegar

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Rice vinegar and nori sheet
Joy Skipper/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Given the importance of rice in Chinese food and culture - inquiring whether a person has had their bowl of rice is a common greeting in southern China - it's not surprising that the Chinese have been using rice to make vinegar for at least 3,000 years. 

A trip through any Asian grocery store quickly reveals how complex the world of rice vinegar has become since those ancient times. There are several basic types of Chinese rice vinegar, along with sweetened varieties that have everything from sugar to ginger, orange peel and/or cloves added for extra flavor.
  
Rice Wine or Rice Vinegar?

Before going any further, let's clear up the difference between rice wine and rice vinegar. Enjoyed by the Chinese for over 4,000 years, rice wine is made by a fermentation process involving yeast that transforms the sugars from glutinous rice into alcohol. When making rice vinegar the fermentation process goes one step further, adding bacteria to turn the alcohol into an acid. It's easy enough to confuse the two since they often sit side by side at the grocery store. The fact that rice vinegar is also called "rice wine vinegar" doesn't help matters.
 
Types of Rice Vinegar
 

  • Black Rice Vinegar
    Black rice vinegar is very popular in southern China, where Chinkiang vinegar, the best of the black rice vinegars, is made. Normally black rice vinegar is made with glutinous or sweet rice, although millet or sorghum may be used instead. Dark in color, it has a deep, almost smoky flavor. One word of warning: the quality of black rice vinegars varies strongly. I once tried a brand where the caramel and sugar overpowered all the other flavors. Gold Plum's Chinkiang vinegar, made with glutinous rice, water and salt, is generally considered to be the best. Black rice vinegar works well in braised dishes and as a dipping sauce. It can also serve as a substitute for balsamic vinegar.
     
  • Red Rice Vinegar
    This is another vinegar that is dark colored, but lighter than black rice vinegar. In any event, you'll never get the two mixed up once you have a taste - red rice vinegar is an intriguing combination of tart and sweet. Red rice vinegar can be used as a substitute for black vinegar - just add a bit of sugar. It makes a very good dipping sauce, and you can also use it in noodle, soup and seafood dishes (you'll often find it in recipes for Hot and Sour and Shark's Fin Soup). Both Pearl River Bridge and Koon Chun from Hong Kong are good brands.
         
  • White Rice Vinegar
    This is a colorless liquid, higher in vinegar content and more similar in flavor to regular vinegar (every time I taste it I immediately envision a plate of salty French fries doused in vinegar). Nonetheless, it is still less acidic and milder in flavor than regular vinegar. There is also a hint of sweetness that comes from the glutinous rice. The higher vinegar content of white rice vinegar makes it the best choice for sweet and sour dishes, and for pickling vegetables. It generally works well in stir-fries. The best brand is Pearl River Bridge.
Cooks frequently prefer one rice vinegar over another - one of my instructors routinely added black Chinkiang vinegar to all her stir-fries. My personal favorite is the red – I love its unique tart and sweet flavor. But any rice vinegar will make a milder, sweeter alternative to regular vinegar. An added plus is that rice vinegar is considered to be a digestive aid and is low in calories.

Don’t think you need to limit your use of rice vinegar to Chinese dishes. Creative cooks have used it to spice up everything from stewed ribs to barbecue rubs. A few tablespoons of tart rice vinegar adds a wicked kick to salad dressings. And Japanese rice vinegar is one of the secret ingredients in sushi rice. The only limit is your imagination.

Now, on to the recipes!

Next Page> Recipes using Chinese Rice Vinegar

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