Appears in
Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

vinegar has been in use for thousands of years and its origins are untraceable. One of the earliest references is from the 5th century bc, where Hippocrates recommended its medicinal powers. However, then as now, its main use has been as a flavouring and preserving agent.

There was no need to invent vinegar as it makes itself without difficulties. When wine or any alcoholic drink is exposed to the air it turns sour. Aerobic (air-breathing) bacteria invade it and oxidize (combine with oxygen) the alcohol to acetic acid. Before the invention of the wine cork this was a constant and unwelcome phenomenon. Flasks of wine were sealed with clay and wax which often cracked and let in the air, so that the wine soon went sour. Indeed the word ‘vinegar’ comes from the French vin aigre, meaning sour wine.