Here’s a new kind of vinegar, not one flavored with lime juice but made from it. It resembles some old friends but suggests new uses of its own.
We’ve had a mixed history of vinegar diversity in this country. For a long time, we could get only two or three kinds of vinegar in supermarkets: cider, distilled and, the foodie favorite, wine vinegar, which usually came in a differently shaped bottle.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the foodie’s vinegar was tarragon, because tarragon can magically fool the palate into thinking it’s sweet, so tarragon vinegar didn’t seem as harshly acidic as the other kinds. In the 1970s, balsamic vinegar stepped into tarragon vinegar’s shoes and thus began the Balsamic Age in which we still live.
Not counting occasional flurries of flavoring vinegar with herbs or spices (sometimes commercially made but more often, I suspect, homemade as Christmas presents), that’s where things stand now. But in the Persian Gulf, people make a distinctive “vinegar” that is almost as easy to make as your own tarragon or thyme vinegar except for having to squeeze a lot of limes and wait for a couple of weeks. You’re not likely to know about it unless you happen to have read Celia Ann Brock-Al-Ansari’s “The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook,” published by Emirates Airlines in 1994.
It doesn’t involve inoculating wine or fruit juice with acid-forming bacteria. They do that sometimes in the Gulf with grape juice or date juice, but this “vinegar” is made from lime juice.
Why bother, you might say? Lime juice is already sour. Ah, but after a couple of weeks of aging, the lime juice takes on an evocative aroma suggesting some kind of decadent late-19th century cologne. It’s the same sort of aroma you know from Moroccan pickled lemons.
This probably casts light on what gives pickled lemons their unique aroma. Lemon and lime peels contain chemicals called terpenes, which are also found in conifers, and this must explain the piney part of the pickled lemon smell. But there are no terpenes in the juice (or if there are, only a smidgen due to oils expelled from the peel during squeezing). The plush, decadent aroma of pickled lemons — and lime vinegar — is evidently due to oxidation.
We find the same aroma in the bottled lime juice, including Rose’s brand, used in some old-fashioned cocktails. But cocktail lime juice is sweetened, making it more or less an aged lime version of sweet-and-sour mix. Lime vinegar is sour and a little salty, though it gives less of a salty impression than you’d expect from tasting it before it’s aged. The salt is probably there to prevent the growth of bacteria.
You could probably make this with fresh lemon juice, just as you can pickle limes according to the same recipe used in Morocco for lemons. Limes are better in my opinion because they are more aromatic. Just don’t try it with orange juice because for some reason it develops a revolting aroma like spoiled pumpkin.
How would you use it? In the first place, sparingly, because lime vinegar’s aroma is so distinctive. A bit can make vinaigrette memorable. I’d say its main use would be in condiments, including olive tapenade or a sour cream spread flavored with herbs or walnuts. It can substitute for lemon juice in a Bloody Mary or avgolemono soup. I’d even be willing to try it in a ricotta cheesecake, though the salt might be a little distracting.
Brock-Al-Ansari says to age the lime juice outdoors. I’ve tried it outdoors and indoors, and not noticed any difference.
Makes 2 cups
2 cups fresh lime juice, about 1½ to 1¾ pounds limes
2 tablespoons salt
Stir the salt into the lime juice. Transfer to a sealable jar or other container and set aside for 5 to 6 weeks. The juice will become a light dingy tan and develop a plush aroma.