The Difference Between Apple Cider Vinegar and White Vinegar

Published Categorized as Food
Apple cider vs. white vinegar

Tangy and zesty, vinegar is an all-purpose ingredient in home kitchens across the world. Whether it’s dressing salads, making chicken soup, or baking veggies, vinegar adds that distinct sourness and sweetness to your dish, elevating its taste and balancing out the other flavors.

Two types of vinegar that you’ll find in most kitchens are apple cider vinegar and white vinegar. And the differences between them are a lot more than their taste and color.

Keep on reading to find out why.

What’s the difference between apple cider vinegar and white vinegar?

White vinegar has 5% to 10% acetic acid, making it the strongest vinegar of them all. It’s clear in color and has a clean, highly sour taste. Apple cider vinegar contains 4% to 6% acetic acid. It’s light-brown in color and has a sweet, sour taste of fermented apples.

Perhaps that’s why apple cider vinegar is mostly used for dressing salads, marinating meats, and preparing sauces, whereas white vinegar is the vinegar of choice for “simpler” cooking tasks such as dyeing Easter eggs, picking food, and even cleaning windows or removing stains from clothes.

Where Vinegar Comes From

Vinegar comes from the natural process of fermentation

Vinegar is the product of fermentation, the same biological process that makes your beer bubble and homemade dough rise.

Microorganisms, like yeast and other bacteria, feed on the sugars and starches in food and, as a result, they produce alcohol or acid. That acid acts as a natural preservative for the vinegar, and is what gives it its zesty, tarty taste. Most alcoholic drinks, such as beer, cider, wine, vodka, and whiskey, are also made through fermentation.

The name “vinegar” comes from vin aigre in Old French, which means “sour wine.” If you leave a ¾-full bottle of wine open for 2 weeks, it turns into wine vinegar.

Acetobacter bacteria, which live everywhere (in the air, on fruit, inside grape presses), will populate your wine and start to feed on the alcohol contained in it, churning out acetic acid as a byproduct. The higher the acetic acid content relative to the water content, the more acidic and stronger the vinegar.

Historians have accounts of people producing vinegar as early as four millennia ago. The first documented evidence dates back to the time of the ancient Babylonians, who, around 3,000 BC, made their own vinegar. They produced it by fermenting figs and dates, and used it as a condiment in cooking as well as a natural medicine.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar comes from fermented apples

Tangy and sweet, apple cider vinegar is a favorite among health-conscious consumers and home cooks. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

How It’s Made

Apple cider vinegar is created from apples, sugar, and yeast. The apples are crushed and mixed with sugar and yeast, kickstarting the fermentation process. The apple cider vinegar then ferments into two stages: alcoholic fermentation and acidic fermentation.

Alcoholic fermentation comes first: the yeast bacteria feed on the crushed apples and the sugar that’s contained in them (in the form of carbohydrates), converting it into alcohol.

Then, the acidic fermentation process takes place. Acetobacter bacteria, which can be found pretty much anywhere, colonize the liquid and feed on the remaining sugars in the alcohol, converting it into vinegar.

Clearly, bacteria like yeast and acetobacter love sugar as much as—if not more than—you and I do.

What to Use Apple Cider Vinegar For

Use apple cider vinegar for dressing salads, seasoning grilled vegetables, marinating meats, and giving sauces, soups, and stews a kick. Some people add 1-2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to their morning smoothie, or mix it with water to make an apple cider vinegar tonic.

Humanity has been using vinegar as a remedy for thousands of years. Specifically, apple cider vinegar is claimed to have a number of benefits for your health. Though, it must be said, many of them need to be taken with a grain of salt, as they’re not necessarily backed by research.

To learn more about the proven health benefits of apple cider vinegar, refer to “Does apple cider vinegar have any proven health benefits?” at Harvard Health Publishing.

What I can tell you with certainty is that apple cider vinegar is a great condiment to use for your daily cooking 🙂 .

Apple Cider Vinegar Buyer’s Guide

An important byproduct of the fermentation process for apple cider vinegar is “the mother of vinegar.” This is a membrane-like material that consists of strands of protein, along with the enzymes and “good” bacteria. It can be used for making new batches of vinegar.

Here’s how the mother of vinegar looks like:

Vinegar mother
The mother of vinegar

To make their apple cider vinegar look more appealing to most consumers, many producers filter out the mother before bottling their vinegar. This also eliminates some of the health benefits of apple cider vinegar that come from the enzymes and bacteria in the mother.

When buying apple cider vinegar for your home, go for raw, unfiltered, and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar whenever you have the option. This way, you will always get the most natural product that hasn’t gone through any additional processing.

My personal favorite is the Bragg Organic Raw Apple Cider Vinegar (on Amazon). Founded by late American alternative health food advocate Paul Bragg in 1912, Bragg is an American company that’s been making apple cider vinegar for well over a century now. Their vinegar is raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized, and diluted to 5% acidity. It’s made from organically grown apples and some of the mother of the vinegar gets into each bottle.

White Vinegar

White vinegar comes from fermented grain

Also known as “distilled white vinegar” and “spirit vinegar,” white vinegar is a staple in most American households.

How It’s Made

White vinegar is the most acidic and aggressive vinegar. Its color is clear and, depending on its application, it contains anywhere from 5% acetic acid for pickling and cooking to 10% acetic acid for cleaning windows and removing stains from clothes.

White vinegar is also made through the natural process of fermentation. Historically, people made white vinegar from sugar beets, potatoes, molasses, whey, and any other sweet or starchy fruit or vegetable that was readily available to them in their part of the world.

Nowadays, white vinegar is mostly made from grain. Sugar and yeast are mixed with grain, triggering alcoholic fermentation. This produces grain alcohol, also known as ethanol (which vodka is made of).

Since ethanol doesn’t contain many nutrients, producers add yeast or phosphates to it to kickstart the acidic fermentation. Acetobacter colonizes the liquid, feeds on the sugars inside, and turns the grain alcohol into white vinegar. The white vinegar is diluted to any concentration between 5% and 10% vinegar to 95% and 90% water based on the application.

What to Use White Vinegar For

Use white vinegar in your home kitchen for making marinade for meat and preparing brine for pickles.

You can also use white vinegar to make a DIY cleaning solution. Clean your floor using a solution of ½ cup of white vinegar to half a gallon of warm water. Make the solution again and change the water when it gets dirty.

White Vinegar Buyer’s Guide

Good white vinegar is fairly easy to find. Look for distilled white vinegar with 5% acidity. As a rule of thumb, any white vinegar made from grain alcohol and distilled water will do. My personal favorite is Heinz Distilled White Vinegar (at Amazon).

Summing It Up

Apple cider vinegar and white vinegar are the product of nature’s fermentation process.

Microorganisms, like yeast and other bacteria, feed on sugars and starches in food. In doing so, they produce alcohol (during what is known as alcoholic fermentation) and acetic acid (during acidic fermentation).

Vinegar is essentially fruit that has gone through two fermentation stages. First, it goes through alcoholic fermentation and, thanks to bacteria like yeast, turns into alcohol. Then, it goes through acidic fermentation, where acetobacter bacteria consume the remaining sugars and produce vinegar. The vinegar is diluted to less than 10% for home use and sold in bottles.

The best apple cider vinegar comes from organically grown apples. It’s raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized, and is sold with “the mother of vinegar.” When you buy apple cider vinegar like this, you get the enzymes and “good” bacteria that contribute to your wellbeing.

White vinegar comes from fermented grain. Though I shared my favorites, it’s your taste and your kitchen. Find the white vinegar brand and variety you like the most.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.