A lot of my friends claim not to like the flavor of vinegar. As an avid appreciator of all things briney and pickley and sour, I happen to love vinegar. I enjoy the intense bite of vinegar in barbecue. However, even if it's not a dominant flavor, vinegar adds a lot to the actual cooking process in barbecue.
Vinegar contains acetic acid, which is what gives it such pungency. In a concentrated form, acetic acid is dangerously corrosive. In its diluted form, as found in vinegar, it is actually very helpful for cooking. Vinegar helps "break down" meat, particularly tough, fatty meat or collagen-laden meat. This is why bastes, or "mop sauces" are usually 50% vinegar or more.
Did you know that smoke flavor can actually be enhanced by using a vinegar-based marinade, or by brushing meat with vinegar before barbecuing? This is because vinegar helps open the pores of raw meat, allowing smoke to penetrate more easily. Additionally, the oils from your spice rub will seep into the pores of the meat, allowing the flavor to infuse into the finished product deeply.
There are many different types of vinegar, so it may be confusing figuring out which one (or ones) to choose for barbecuing. Apple cider vinegar is a favorite among barbecuers, due to the fact that it's flavorful and has a medium pungency. It's not exactly dark like balsamic vinegar or Chinese black vinegar, and it's not exactly light like rice wine or white wine vinegar.
Sizzle Grove recommends mixing apple cider vinegar with another lighter vinegar, such as either rice wine or white wine, for most barbecuing applications from marinades to bastes to sauces. We also like using red wine vinegar, particularly for items with Mexican or Italian style spice rubs. However, for our signature coffee sauces and bastes, a small amount of balsamic vinegar can be quite delicious.
Most grocery stores these days have a wide variety of different styles of vinegars, from fruit vinegar, to champagne vinegar, to red wine vinegar. Asian grocery stores will have more exotic types, such as palm vinegar, coconut vinegar (which is REALLY sharp), and black vinegar. Get a small variety to try out for different barbecue dishes.