At least two criteria must be considered to assess the quality of vinegar. In contrast to other fermented foods, where authenticity is rarely disputed, vinegar can be adulterated, either with less expensive vinegar or with other acidic agents. In rare instances, adulteration is caused by even more dubious means. For example, acetic acid produced via chemical synthesis can be diluted and then marketed (illegally) as fermentation-derived vinegar. Thus, the first quality criterion is based on establishing that the vinegar is actually vinegar (and not just diluted acetic acid) and that the type of vinegar indicated on the label accurately represents what is in the product. Satisfying this requirement, however, is no easy matter, and requires a statistical multivariate approach (reviewed nicely by Tesfaye et. al., 2002). Discriminating analyses that are used to distinguish samples of vinegar involve measuring selected chemical constituents, including minerals, alcohols, acids, phenolics, and other volatile compounds. Using such an approach, it is even possible to differentiate the fermentation process used to produce the vinegar (e.g., traditional versus quick acetification methods).
The other main characteristics on which vinegar quality is based are those that relate to flavor, aroma, and other organoleptic properties. Vinegar flavor is particularly influenced by the raw ethanolic material from which it was made. Thus, wine vinegars contain a mixture of phenolic compounds that are ordinarily present in grapes. And although acetic acid is by far the predominant flavor present in vinegar, other volatile flavor compounds are also present and contribute to the overall flavor profile of vinegar. The enzymes—alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase—that oxidize ethanol and acetaldehyde, respectively, also oxidize other alcohols and aldehydes.Thus, if the must, mash, or other starting material contains these substrates, a diverse array of end products can be obtained.These products include formic,pro-pionic, and butyric acids, and glycerol. Other volatile compounds commonly found in vinegar include diacetyl, acetoin, and ethyl acetate.
Of course, the ultimate measure of vinegar quality, as for other fermented food products, is based on sensory analysis. Performing these analyses for vinegar, however, is particularly challenging since acetic acid has a strong, overpowering flavor. Therefore, samples can be diluted, mixed with lettuce, or even served in small amounts in wine glasses. In fact, sensory analysis of vinegar is not unlike that used for wine analysis, in that both generally require trained tasters and both rely on similar descriptors (e.g., woody, fruity, etc.).
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