Marcel Recorbet, Martin Pouret, Pommery, Soleillou, Dessaux, Vilux, Badia a Coltibuono, Mazzetti, Monari Federzoni, La Posada, Hengstenberg. Shopping for vinegar these days is like buying wine. The choices are bewildering, often requiring a guide, if not an interpreter.

Not only are many of the brand names foreign but the flavors are a far cry from the apple cider and distilled white vinegar with which most Americans grew up.

Just as the term "seasoning" no longer means salt and pepper, "vinegar" no longer refers to just the amber-colored cider vinegar that has graced this nation's tables for so many decades.

From the increasingly popular woodsy and mellow balsamic vinegar to the fragrant raspberry vinegar or full and rich sherry vinegar to the more exotic flavors as blueberry, basil or walnut vinegar, this age-old condiment is being used to enliven salads, perk up stews and enhance soups.

It can even be found in desserts. The Rattlesnake Club in Detroit, for instance, adds a dash of balsamic vinegar to its pears poached in red wine sauce and served with cinnamon ice cream. "It's really wonderful," says chef and owner Jimmy Schmidt. "The balsamic vinegar balances the sugar content of the poaching liquid."

Vinegar may not be as expensive or as complex as wine, but the analogy is not so far fetched. For one thing, most of today's popular vinegars use wine as a base that is fermented again; typically, the better the wine, the better the vinegar.

"There is a large difference between a cheap table wine and a fine, well aged wine; the same is true of vinegar," says Kathy Gunst, author of "Condiments," which includes a chapter on vinegar. "A cheap vinegar has an overpowering smell that makes you want to sneeze. One aged in wood for 10 to 15 years is mellow and sweet and is a smell you want to stay with."

And just like wine, each flavor has subtle and not-so-subtle differences, making some bottles better suited for certain dishes than others.

Fruit vinegars, for example, go better with chicken than fish, while the heavy malt vinegar is a popular favorite with the English dish of fish and chips. But its heaviness makes it a poor ingredient in lighter dishes and salads. Meanwhile, champagne vinegar is a delicate foil on a salad, requiring little oil to offset its mild acidity. But that very lightness would get lost in heavy stews or winter soups.

"People are now realizing that a tremendous range of acidity and flavors is possible to achieve with different vinegars," notes local cookbook author Ellen Brown, whose "Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook" features many recipes with vinegar.

"We have entered an era of food connoisseurship, especially in things like condiments," Brown adds. "There is an array of products and we are able to detect the nuances. Once a palate has adjusted to a really fine olive oil and a very good mustard, you can't go back to the stuff you're raised with." That's not to say a cook should avoid apple cider vinegar, Brown says. "It has a wonderful flavor," but so too do many others.

Vinegar's growing popularity is easy to spot on supermarket shelves. Once it was relegated to no more than two 3-foot long shelves, which were devoted almost entirely to two flavors: apple cider and distilled white vinegar. If you were lucky enough to live in what was considered an "upscale" neighborhood, a couple of brands of red wine vinegar might also have been included.

Today, however, most supermarkets allot several shelves to vinegar, with many different flavors and brands. At a local Northern Virginia Safeway, for instance, wine vinegar, came in red or white, with garlic or without, aged in wood or not. There were two different brands of balsamic vinegar and two different types of tarragon vinegar (one with a sprig of tarragon, one without) as well as one brand of raspberry vinegar.

Down the street, at a Giant, the selection was even greater, with malt vinegar and three different kinds of Oriental rice wine vinegar rounding out the choices.

Meanwhile, at nearby specialty food stores, dozens more flavors could be found, including, Cognac, champagne, sherry, lemon, basil, walnut, shallot and devilishly hot vinegar.

At the specialty stores, most of the brand names were foreign, but at the supermarkets many of the wine and flavored vinegars -- called "specialty" vinegars by the industry -- were made by American companies, including Heinz, the world's largest vinegar producer.

"Specialty vinegar is the fastest growing segment of the vinegar category," says a spokeswoman for Heinz, which sells red and white wine, tarragon, malt and garlic flavored vinegars as well as its age-old apple cider and distilled white vinegars. "Consumption is up 10 percent over a year ago. Overall, specialty vinegars represent 11 percent of vinegar sales in terms of volume." However, because prices are so much higher for these vinegars, specialty flavors account for 33 percent of the dollar sales.

With the increased selection, comes of course increased use. "For so long, vinegar was used only in bottled salad dressings, then just on lettuce," says Gunst. "Now, it's being used for everything -- stews, soups, poultry, even strawberries." Many cooks, for example, use a splash of balsamic vinegar on strawberries or melon to heighten the fruity flavor. "People are beginning to use vinegars instead of sauces and butters and all those rich things that have been traditionally used to cook foods," adds Ron Tanner, spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

In fact, vinegar's very pungent and piquant flavor makes it an attractive alternative to those cooks trying to cut down the fat. One popular use is to deglaze the pan with vinegar, adding a tablespoon or two after saute'eing meat, poultry or vegetables. Stir the vinegar to loosen the browned bits of food on the bottom, add a little bit of wine or stock, reduce the liquid by half and spoon the sauce over the saute'ed dish.

"People still want full flavor in their foods but they are eating lighter and with less heavy cream sauces," Schmidt says. "Vinegar in sauces, used with tiny amounts of other ingredients such as stock, allow very forward flavors -- pretty concentrated flavors -- without the quantity or richness of a heavy sauce."

Additionally, Schmidt notes, small quantities of vinegar "tend to brighten the flavors. A great herbed vinegar splashed over a brisket of beef really brings up the flavor. A few drops of vinegar on a piece of meat and the flavor is wonderful."

Vinegar can also be a labor-saving device for those cooks who don't want to stand over a stove stirring roux for cream sauces. "It is a great time saver," says Julee Rosso, coauthor of "The Silver Palate Cookbook," which introduced the concept of flavored vinegars to many American cooks.

"You get so much flavor from a bottle and you don't have to start from scratch. Make a quick stir-fry, sprinkle a little vinegar and get a lot of flavor."

For salad dressings, herbed-flavored vinegars are an even greater time saver, Tanner notes. "You can just mix the vinegar with olive oil and don't even have to put the herbs in. It's not hard to do, but just another matter of convenience for the time-pressed cook."

CRAZY CAKE (10 servings)

This classic cake may have gotten its name because it includes vinegar or because it is made in the pan in which the cake is baked (almost no dishes to clean up!). Whatever the name, it is a wonderful cake to make, not just because it is simple and the ingredients are in most kitchen pantries but also because it is a rich, moist, old-fashioned chocolate cake.

3 cups flour

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cocoa

3/4 cup oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons vinegar, preferably cider vinegar

2 cups water

FOR THE ICING:

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 of a stick) butter

4 tablespoons milk

3 tablespoons cocoa

2 2/3 cups ( 3/4 of a one-pound box) confectioners' sugar

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa into an ungreased 9-by-13-inch pan. With a fork, lightly stir to evenly mix the ingredients. Add the oil, vanilla and vinegar. Pour the water over entire ingredients. Mix with fork until smooth, making sure to mix in any batter that sticks in the corners. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted into middle of cake comes out clean.

Remove from oven and immediately top with icing while cake is still in the pan.

To make the icing: Melt the butter, add the milk and cocoa and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and gradually add the confectioners' sugar by sifting it into the mixture (without sifting, the icing will be lumpy). When the icing is smooth, pour and spread over the cake; let it set until the icing slightly hardens.

Per serving: 504 calories, 5 gm protein, 69 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 460 mg sodium.

RED PEPPER BISQUE WITH SEAFOOD (6 servings)

Sweet red peppers are a perfect foil for the delicate seafood. While satisfying, the soup remains light, with an underlying sweet and sour flavor and a luscious vivid red color.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 red bell peppers, seeds and ribs removed, chopped

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup peeled, chopped apple

1/2 cup peeled, chopped carrot

4 cups chicken stock, preferably unsalted

1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen

Pinch of crushed hot red pepper

1/4 cup tarragon vinegar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

Pinch of freshly ground white pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted canned stock)

1/4 cup baby shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/4 cup bay scallops, halved

Heat the oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the red bell pepper, onion, apple and carrot. Saute', stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes or until the onions are translucent.

Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the soup, partially covered, for 25 minutes. Pure'e the soup in a blender or food processor fitted with the steel blade; return it to the saucepan.

Stir in the corn, crushed red pepper, tarragon vinegar, lime juice, parsley, white pepper, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, and simmer, uncovered, for 7 minutes. (The soup can be prepared up to this step two days in advance and then refrigerated in a tightly sealed container. Just before serving, bring it slowly back to a boil and then add the seafood.)

Add the shrimp and scallops to the simmering soup, turn off the heat immediately, and cover the pot. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes. Serve immediately in heated soup bowls.

Per serving: 100 calories, 7 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, .6 gm saturated fat, 13 mg cholesterol, 548 mg sodium.

From "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook" by Ellen Brown (Bantam Books, 1989)

PAN-FRIED PORK CHOPS WITH SHERRY VINEGAR AND FRENCH CORNICHONS

(4 servings)

Here is a version of a very old pork recipe, which has been revived recently by young French chefs and now appears on menus at chic Parisian restaurants. The lively, very aromatic sauce is quick to cook, and if you prepare a gratin of melting potatoes as an accompaniment, you will have a fine, homey dinner.

FOR THE MARINADE:

1 garlic clove, sliced thin

1 teaspoon minced parsley

1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon

1 shallot, sliced thin

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 loin or rib pork chops, 1/2 inch thick, weighing about 6 ounces each

TO FINISH:

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 or 5 French cornichons, rinsed and chopped fine (1 1/2 tablespoons)

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon parsley, minced

1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, minced

Make a marinade by combining the garlic, parsley, tarragon, shallot and olive oil. Rub over pork chops and let them stand at room temperature up to 2 hours, or refrigerate for longer. Bring the pork back to room temperature before continuing.

With a fork, crush the butter and then work in the chopped cornichons. Set the butter aside in a cool place.

Brush a heavy skillet with oil and set the skillet over medium-high heat. Wipe the chops dry and brown them for 3 minutes on each side. Transfer them to a side dish; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Discard the fat in the skillet. Add the vinegar and water and boil down by half. Add the prepared butter and swirl, stirring until the sauce is satiny and slightly thick. Return the pork chops to the skillet and cook over low heat, basting with the skillet juices, until the meat is thoroughly cooked, but still moist, about 5 minutes. Serve at once, sprinkled with fresh herbs.

Per serving: 541 calories, 48 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 35 gm fat, 12 gm saturated fat, 172 mg cholesterol, 256 mg sodium.

Adapted from "World of Food" by Paula Wolfert (Harper & Row, 1988)

CHICKEN BREASTS WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR

(6 servings)

Pungent, aged balsamic vinegar is mellow enough to be used straight from the bottle as a condiment. Here it forms the basis for a robust sweet-and-sour wine sauce, with citrus zest and tarragon lending their piquant nuances.

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 cup white wine

1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup dried currants

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon or 1/4 teaspoon dried

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Pound the chicken fillets to a uniform thickness of 1/3 inch (or have the butcher do it).

Pour the wine into a skillet and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken breasts, reduce the heat to a simmer, and poach the chicken for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, reserving wine.

Meanwhile, bring the orange juice and vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and add the raisins and currants; let them soak for 15 minutes.

Add the reserved wine and the remaining ingredients to the orange juice pan; bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer, uncovered, until the mixture is reduced by half.

Cut the chicken fillets into slices. Pour the sauce over the chicken and allow it to sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving. The dish can then be reheated, served at room temperature, or chilled.

NOTE: The dish can be prepared up to two days in advance and reheated slowly or served cold or at room temperature.

Per serving: 336 calories, 36 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 199 mg sodium.

From "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook" by Ellen Brown (Bantam Books, 1989)