A splash of vinegar makes (almost) everything at a summer cookout so much better

Sure, it's great for pickles. But vinegar has a place in summer sides, marinades and cocktails, too

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 30, 2021 4:30PM (EDT)

Vinegar (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Vinegar (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Distilled white vinegar deserves more love. 

It's a simple ingredient, essentially made by feeding oxygen to a grain alcohol that's similar to vodka. That fermentation process causes bacteria to grow and acetic acid to form, which gives distilled white vinegar its strength and sourness. 

And while many people keep a jug around for household chores — understandably so, since it's tough on mildew and grime — it deserves the spotlight this summer. Seriously, a splash of vinegar makes almost everything at a summer cookout better, from main courses to sides to cocktails. It gives a nice tang to the special sauce I plan on putting on my burgers and is great for quick-pickling onions and cucumbers. 

Here are some of the other summer dishes where your vinegar belongs: 

In your starchy, mayonnaise-laden salads

I'm the kind of person who goes to a steakhouse for the sides, so the starchy salads coated in mayonnaise (pasta, potato, etc.) are honestly the main cookout draw for me. And while they're hard to mess up — though Salon's Melanie McFarland has thoughts on raisins in potato salads — they're easy to make much, much better with the simple addition of vinegar. 

Think about it: Starch is often better when balanced with acid, same with fat and creaminess. You can accomplish this using citrus or a few tablespoons of sour cream, but distilled white vinegar has the benefit of not altering the texture or flavor too much. Instead, it simply enhances the flavors that are already present. Just a splash will do. 

As the base of your marinades 

Vinegar packs a one-two punch in marinades. It's great for flavor, adding some brightness to grilling meats, especially when paired with the right herbs, salt and spices. But it also helps tenderize meat as acid — like wine, lemon juice and yogurt — break down the collagen and muscle fibers, while helping it retain all of its juices. 

Now, since distilled white vinegar is so strong, you'll want to combine it with a fat. Olive oil makes a great pairing. 

As the star of your shrub cocktails and mocktails 

When the weather hits anything above 70 degrees, I become a shrub evangelist. Shrubs are essentially a drinking vinegar that is made by combining fresh fruit and sugar with (obviously) vinegar. They have just the right amount of pucker; if you like kombucha or sour IPAs, you'll love shrubs. 

When picking fruits, I tend to choose stone fruits, like peaches or apricots, or berries. Apples tend to get mealy and citrus is just a little too much acid-on-acid action. 

My go-to formula is 2 cups of chopped fruit or berries, 1 ½ cups of vinegar and ¼ white sugar, which I bring to a boil in a saucepan and then remove from the heat to steep for about a half hour. That gets strained into a jar, which can be kept in the refrigerator for up to six months. 

Mix them with your favorite spirits — I like gin and tequila for summer — or ginger beer for a refreshing cocktail or  mocktail. 

I'm also convinced that we could bring the wine cooler back full-force for 2021 if we just started infusing them with some homemade shrubs. Many wine coolers use a 4-4-2 formula: 4 ounces wine, 4 ounces soda and 2 ounces of liqueur. I've taken to swapping out the liqueur for shrubs and it's fantastic, especially when paired with sweet-ish, dry wine like a Zinfandel or a Riesling (it's also a way to use up any cheap wines you have on hand that veer too-sweet) 


As I was testing this recipe for a strawberry shrub and rosé wine cooler, one of my best friends texted me that she had purchased a 12-foot inflatable pool, citronella candles and a fancy umbrella for "cocktail and floating" afternoons. I was able to respond, "I've got the perfect thing to bring." It's refreshing, sweet and tart and perfectly chilled. 

The New Yorker's Helen Rosner has written at length about the virtues of pellet ice (a.k.a. "the good ice") and, if you can snag a bag, use it in this cocktail. It's like a mix of a strawberry slushie and a frosé. 

Recipe: Strawberry Shrub and Rosé Wine Cooler 
1 cocktail 

  • 4 ounces of chilled rosé
  • 4 ounces of club soda 
  • 2 ounces of strawberry shrub (made using the formula above) 
  • Sliced strawberries for garnish
  • Crushed or pellet ice 

1. Fill a cocktail glass half full with ice. Mix the chilled rosé and the strawberry shrub in a cocktail shaker and pour over the ice. 

2. Finish with the club soda and garnish the cocktail with sliced strawberries. 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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