Although it is not possible to know precisely when human beings first began to produce and consume fermented foods, the origin for some products can reasonably be estimated. Vinegar, for example, was likely discovered shortly after (like about a week) the advent of the first successful wine fermentation. As excited as that first enologist must have been to have somehow turned grape juice into wine, one can imagine the disappointment that must have followed when the wine itself subsequently turned into a sour, unpalatable liquid, seemingly devoid of any redeeming virtues. Even though that sour wine, vin aigre in French, obviously couldn't be drunk with the same enjoyment or enthusiasm as the wine, it was not, it turned out, without value. Indeed, vinegar has a long history of use, and is now one of the most widely used ingredients in the food industry, with world-wide production of about 1 million L per year.
The actual history of vinegar consumption dates back several thousand years. Although other fermented foods, such as wine, beer, and cheese, evolved, in part, because of their enhanced preservation status, vinegar was likely used for its ability to preserve other non-fermented, perishable foods, such as meats and vegetables.Thus, vinegar can be considered as the first biologically-produced preservative. However, in addition to its use as a so-called pickling agent, it was also consumed directly as a flavoring agent, and, in a diluted form, as a beverage.
Vinegar consumption is first noted in the Bible (Numbers 6:1 and Ruth 2:l4),and,accord-ing to the New Testament, was given to Jesus during the crucifixion (John 19:23). Diluted vinegar was a popular beverage throughout the Greek and Roman eras, where it gained favor as a therapeutic beverage.The production of vinegar was not confined to Europe; it was also produced throughout Asia.Although the substrates were different, the processes were remarkably similar to those that evolved in Europe. Finally, in addition to its use as a food or food ingredient, vinegar has also long been used as a topical disinfectant, as a cleaning agent, and as an industrial chemical due to its strong demineralization properties.
In the food industry, vinegar is used mainly as an acidulent, a flavoring agent, and a preservative, but it also has many other food processing applications. It is found in hundreds of different processed foods, including salad dressings, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup, bread and bakery products, pickled foods, canned foods, and marinades and sauces. It is used in almost every culture and is part of nearly every cuisine. And although many of the vinegars produced around the world are made from ordinary substrates and often have rather nondescript sensory properties, others are produced from premium wines, carefully aged, and prized (and priced) based on their unique organoleptic attributes.
Returning to our early wine maker, there is a biological reason, of course, to account for the unfortunate fate of that ancient wine.Wine, we now know, turns into vinegar because naturally-occurring bacteria exist, namely species of Acetobacter, that oxidize the ethanol in the wine to form acetic acid. In fact, any ethanol-containing material can serve as a substrate for the vinegar fermentation, and, as will be discussed below, there are numerous types of vinegars that are produced from a variety of ethanolic substrates. While wine producers take special measures to prevent contamination by acetic acid-producing bacteria and to avoid the oxygen supply that is necessary for the ethanol-to-acetic-acid conversion, manufacturers of vinegar do just the opposite. In other words, the vinegar fermentation is conducted in the presence of Acetobacter and under conditions that favor growth and oxidative metabolism by this organism.
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