Vinegars can be one of a cook's greatest tools, particularly if that cook is trying to come up with a flavorful but low-fat dressing for a salad.

Used correctly, vinegars can add sweet or sour flavors, tanginess or a mellow undertone. Classic red-wine vinegar is only the tip of the vinegar iceberg. Vinegars can be made from almost any fermentable liquid; different types yield very different flavors.Vinegar is often used only as an accent flavor for oils or creams but can easily be used as the major component of a dressing. Most vinegars are so pungent that their strong alkaline flavors can be balanced with non-oil ingredients such as fruit juices, honey, sugar or a small amount of brewed tea.

Vinegars very effectively can absorb flavors from other ingredients, including garlic, spices and other favorite flavorings. Try adding fresh sprigs of your favorite fresh herbs to a bottle, and use sparingly without oil as a dressing.

Here are some of the most common vinegars:

Red-wine vinegar: Probably the most familiar version for salad dressings. A slightly sweet but mellow vinegar that's great for dressing greens and vegetable salads. Subtle enough for general cooking.

Apple-cider vinegar: Made from apple juice, this is a sweet, tangy vinegar. It has a very strong taste that works well with chutneys, fruit salsas, curries and Mexican cuisine.

Sherry vinegar: This vinegar has sherry's full, smooth flavor. One easy dressing is sherry vinegar with a bit of olive oil and Dijon mustard.

Balsamic vinegar: Made from Trebbiano, an Italian white grape, this is a dense, sweet, dark-color vinegar with enough of a rich flavor to serve as a fine dressing on its own. Combined with a bit of olive oil, it works great, particularly with strong-flavor greens.

Rice vinegar: Made from fermented rice, rice vinegar has a light, clean flavor and is a staple of many Asian cuisines. Brown-rice vinegar is interchangeable with rice vinegar.

Raspberry vinegar: Light and fruity. Works very well with mild-flavor greens such as Boston lettuce.

Malt vinegar: Best known as a condiment for fish and chips, malt vinegar has a somewhat nutty flavor. Made from sprouted barley.

Source: "Vegetarian Planet" by Didi Emmons (Harvard Common Press, $14.95).