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Vinegar: It's More Than a Cucumber-Pickler

Kara Kimbrough

“Ah, the delightful aroma of vinegar wafting through the house.” Said nobody ever.

As a couple of ladies discussed the noxious odor of distilled white vinegar while shopping for jars and supplies in the supermarket canning aisle, childhood memories of my grandmother’s kitchen filled with piles of chopped cucumbers and the pungent smell of boiling vinegar reemerged in my mind and sinuses. I swore I’d never follow her example and use any ingredient that smelled as vile as vinegar.

As with most things we swore we’d never do, making homemade pickles with, yes, boiling vinegar, is one of my favorite summertime activities. Almost as good as the pickles, I’ve learned that cooking with vinegar can be pleasant and result in flavorful, healthy dishes.

A quick perusal of my pantry uncovered not one, but six varieties of vinegar. These tangy liquids are used in a multitude of ways, ranging from de-glazing and making sauces for meat and vegetables; doubling as flavorful meat marinades, especially for chicken that often emerges dry and tasteless from the oven; inexpensive salad dressings and providing an extra “something” to liven almost any dish lacking in taste and flavor.

The all-purpose white variety is essential for pickling cucumbers, but my favorite flavor is apple cider, reported to help increase “good” HDL cholesterol and decrease the “bad” kind. I couldn’t make my favorite Memphis coleslaw without it. In fact, after making the recipe given to me by a family friend, I can no longer tolerate mayonnaise-based cole slaw. The combination of apple cider vinegar and sugar, seasoning, and cabbage, carrots, and onions, results in an addictive flavor that far surpasses run-of-the-mill coleslaws.

Other vinegars in my pantry are balsamic, which besides a powerful flavor, is thought to help lower blood pressure and its red-wine cousin. The latter minimizes blood sugar spikes, a trait particularly useful for diabetics. Last on the shelf are rice vinegar, filled with phenols linked with reduced cancer risk and raspberry, which besides its delicious flavor, gives weight-loss efforts a kick start.

Recipes for using these and other varieties of vinegar are plentiful, but besides dressings and marinades, one of the most basic ways I utilize vinegar is as a substitute for high-calorie vegetable and olive oil.

When I’m in a hurry and need to sauté meat or vegetables on the stovetop, I combine a little vinegar (either balsamic or apple cider) with chicken broth, dash of low-sodium soy sauce, and a drop of honey, which counteracts vinegar’s bitterness. It’s a healthy way to cook and even better, the remaining sauce can be ladled over the meat and side dishes.

Pasta is another favorite meal, but topping it with fattening meat sauce or Alfredo dressing is reserved for special occasions. For a quick, waistline-friendly meal, I cook dried pasta in my Microwave Pasta Boat (if you don’t own one, you’re missing out), then lightly brown the cooked pasta in a skillet with a teaspoon of butter, cup of chicken broth and a splash of rice vinegar. It’s a hearty and here’s the best part, relatively healthy pasta meal.

Last weekend, creating a healthy baked chicken and vegetables dinner for a crowd was on my agenda. However, the thought of rubbery chicken and bland vegetables was as distasteful as my grandmother’s vinegary kitchen. Instead, I marinated the chicken overnight in a bath of herbs, apple cider vinegar and the secret ingredient, honey. The chicken turned out moist and delicious and the accompanying sauce did double duty as a topping for both.

Give vinegar a chance when planning healthy meals. It’s come a long way since it filled our grandmothers’ kitchen with a scent we’ll never completely forget.

One-Pan Secret Ingredient Marinated Chicken and Vegetables

4-5 chicken breasts with rib meat, washed and patted dry

1 cup apple cider vinegar (can use balsamic if you prefer)

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

16 ounces baby red potatoes, quartered

2 cups baby carrots

1 pound asparagus, trimmed (can use long green beans if you prefer)

In a bowl, whisk together vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, garlic, oregano and basil; season with salt and pepper, to taste.

In a gallon size Ziploc bag, combine vinegar mixture and chicken; close and marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour, preferably overnight, turning the bag occasionally. When done, drain the chicken from the marinade.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a stick of butter on a large baking sheet and put it the oven to melt. When butter is melted, place a layer of potatoes down one side of the pan and layer of carrots on the other side. Place chicken down the middle of the pan between potatoes and carrots. Drizzle all with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place pan in oven and roast about 25-30 minutes, or until the chicken is completely cooked through, reaching an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Place asparagus around sides of chicken during the last 10 minutes of cooking time; drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Remove pan when done; allow chicken to rest for five minutes before serving.

Note: If serving a side dish like rice or mashed potatoes, stir up an additional recipe of the marinade and serve on the side to drizzle over chicken and the side dish. Recipe doubles easily.

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