Whether the purpose is to tenderize a piece of meat, to infuse it with a complexity of flavors or both, vinegar is the go-to marinade for many cooks. Nearly all marinades include some kind of acidic liquid to help break down the connective tissue in meat or the fibers in stringy vegetables, and vinegar does the job especially well. The grocery store shelves are stocked with all kinds, from vinegar marinade that is made with red or white wines to those that incorporate fruity fig or savory balsamic vinegar. The best vinegar marinade to choose will depend on its purpose and on the quality and combination of ingredients in the dish.
The more delicate flesh of poultry or fish generally responds best to a white wine, apple cider or even a rice wine-based vinegar marinade. It’s important to know that because vinegar marinades begin to nibble away at collagen as soon as the meat hits the liquid, a shorter marinating time is necessary. Fish, especially, will begin to actually "cook" if left to marinate for too long.
White or apple cider vinegar marinade for fish and poultry can handle any number of additions. Many cooks use a little olive or canola oil to coat the meat and help it stay moist while cooking. Chopped fresh herbs such as basil, rosemary or tarragon help deepen the flavor, and ginger adds a spicy high note. Some cooks like a little mustard, and others prefer an Asian soy sauce note. A little garlic, a dash of pepper, and — voila! — the marinade is ready.
Red meat, pork and tough vegetables are better with red wine vinegar-based marinade. Marinade times can be a lot longer for red meat, because red meat is less delicate than white. Many cooks use a vinegar-based marinade to prepare meat for barbecue, and they add mustard and ketchup or tomato paste as well as lots of chopped onion, green pepper and ginger puréed in the blender. Depending on the type of flavor they’re after, cooks might add a handful of raisins or a few shakes of steak sauce, hot sauce or even curry powder.
In a pinch, white wine vinegar can be used, but most chefs find its taste a little too bossy. If the cook is preparing a cheaper and tougher cut of meat and has nothing else on hand, however, white wine vinegar will break the meat’s connective tissue very well. It’s a good idea to add some olive oil and perhaps deepen the flavor with steak or soy sauce as well.