Vinegar is a sour liquid and staple ingredient in home cooking. It’s made from fermented liquid and comes in dozens of varieties depending on the ingredients of the liquid used. The most common vinegar varieties in most households are distilled white, apple cider, red wine, white wine, and balsamic vinegar.
Most vinegar varieties consist of 4-8% acetic acid and 92-96% water. Vinegar is sold in glass or plastic bottles. It’s carried by practically every supermarket, grocery store, and mom-and-pop store.
You’ll usually find vinegar in the condiments aisle at the supermarket, usually next to the cooking oils and salad dressings.
Table of Contents
- How Vinegar Tastes Like
- Vinegar Varieties
- How Long Does Vinegar Last?
- Household Uses for Vinegar
- Commercial Production of Vinegar
- Making Your Own Vinegar at Home
- Is Acetic Acid the Same as Vinegar?
- Who Discovered Vinegar
- Where to Next?
How Vinegar Tastes Like
Vinegar has a sour taste that’s also described as acidic, pointed, and tangy. Some vinegar varieties also taste sweet.
Adding a small amount of vinegar to your food gives it a brighter and fresher flavor. Too much of it will make it overly sour. Use vinegar as an ingredient or as a condiment sparingly to your taste.
The consistency, flavor, and aromatics of vinegar vary with its origin, ingredients, fermentation, and aging. This is the reason why not all vinegar varieties are interchangeable.
For example, distilled white vinegar is typically made from grain alcohol and fermented in stainless steel drums. It has a clear watery texture and a plain acidic taste.
Balsamic vinegar, on the other hand, is made from grapes and wine, and aged wooden barrels. It has a deep brown color, smooth velvety texture, and sophisticated sweet-and-sour flavor, with subtle earthy notes coming from the wood of the barrels.
There are dozens of vinegar varieties. The most popular varieties in the U.S. and Canada are white vinegar and apple cider vinegar. Wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and sherry vinegar are popular in Europe. Rice vinegar is a traditional condiment and ingredient in Asian cuisines.
|Distilled white vinegar||4-7%||Transparent||Harsh acid||Clear and watery|
|Apple cider vinegar (pasteurized)||4-5%||Lemon yellow to amber||Sour apples||Watery|
|Apple cider vinegar (unpasteurized)||4-5%||Amber to brownish orange||Sour apples||Cloudy and murky|
|Malt vinegar||4-5%||Light to dark brown||Tart and caramel||Slightly syrupy|
|Balsamic vinegar||6-7%||Glossy dark brown||Sweet and sour grapes||Thick and velvety|
|Rice wine vinegar||4-7%||Pale yellow||Mild acidic, somewhat sweet||Sticky|
|Red wine vinegar||6-7%||Ruby red||Tangy||Thin, but somewhat thickened|
|White wine vinegar||6-7%||Pale amber||Subtly sweet and tangy||Thin, but somewhat thickened|
|Sherry vinegar||7-8%||Dark amber||Delicately sweet and slightly acidic||Silky and smooth|
Here’s the things that you need to know about each and every variety on my list.
White vinegar is an ordinary vinegar made by fermenting vodka-like grain alcohol.
Grain alcohol can be produced from any food with a high starch and/or sugar content, such as rye, potatoes, sugar beets, and others. Thanks to its production process, it’s also known as distilled vinegar and spirit vinegar.
Typically, white vinegar is sold as 5% acetic acid and 95% water. However, white vinegar is also commonly used as a household cleaner. When it’s sold as such, it can come in solutions as high as 20% acetic acid and 80% water.
White vinegar has a transparent color, watery texture, and simple taste without any additional flavors or coloring agents.
This vinegar variety is an all-purpose ingredient and versatile condiment for your home cooking. Use it to season salads, brighten up the taste of grilled and sautéed vegetables, pickling cucumbers, making marinades and sauces, and adding a sour kick to baked goods.
White vinegar can also be an affordable and powerful household cleaner.
Many home cooks look at white vinegar as a non-toxic and eco-friendly alternative to the chemically-aggressive cleaning products made by some big consumer brands.
Use white vinegar as a household cleaner for your kitchen to sanitize countertops, dishes, cookware, utensils, and floors. Or use it in the bathroom to clean your toilet, shower, and bathtub. Another use of white vinegar not everyone is aware of is as a stain cleaner.
For best results when cleaning with white vinegar, make a solution of equal parts vinegar and water. Doing so helps you to ensure that the solution is strong enough to sanitize surfaces, but not too much to cause any acidic damage to them.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is made from apple cider. It has an acidity level of 4-5%, an amber color, and a taste of sour and lightly sweet apples.
Use apple cider vinegar for dressing salads or as an ingredient when cooking chili, slow-cooked beans, potato salad, deviled eggs, homemade ketchup, and vinegar-based BBQ sauce. In my experience, apple cider vinegar does something with pulled pork that no other vinegar variety can do.
To make apple cider vinegar, producers extract the juice from apples and add yeast to kickstart the fermentation process. The yeast cells feed on the sugars in the apples and produce apple cider, which contains carbon dioxide and ethanol, as a result.
The cider is exposed to oxygen and, over time, gets populated by acetic acid bacteria. The bacteria feed on the ethanol in the apple cider and convert it into acetic acid.
The resulting vinegar is sold raw (unfiltered and unpasteurized) or filtered and pasteurized. Though filtering and pasteurization are not necessary, some consumers dislike the cloudy and murky texture of raw apple cider vinegar—so producers have adapted.
Unless you’re grossed out by the mother of vinegar, always buy unfiltered and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. It has the live bacteria responsible for some of its touted health benefits.
Apple cider vinegar contains a high amount of healthful substances It’s claimed to have a number of health benefits, including potentially helping to lower blood sugar levels, aiding weight loss, and improving skin health based on the findings of numerous studies.
Malt vinegar is a British vinegar variety made from ale. Ale is a type of beer brewed using a warm fermentation process that has a sweet, full-bodied and fruity taste. It has an acidity level of 4-5%, a brown color that ranges from light to brown, and a tart caramel taste.
In Great Britain, malt vinegar is traditionally used on fish and chips. Malt vinegar is also a staple ingredient in some parts of Canada.
The most common uses for malt vinegar are seasoning salads, topping meat pies and fried foods, and pickling onions.
Balsamic vinegar is an Italian vinegar that’s made from grapes. It has a glossy dark brown color, thick and concentrated texture, an intense taste of grape and wood.
Four types of balsamic vinegar exist based on their origin, production, and authenticity: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale P.D.O., Condimento Balsamico P.G.I., Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I., and balsamic vinegar.
Most balsamic vinegar bottles sold at grocery stores are imitations of the original. Here’s how to tell them apart.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is original balsamic vinegar. It’s made only in the region of Modena in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna province using traditional vinegar-making methods to this day.
Its production is regulated by Italy and the European Union (EU), and overseen by a regulatory agency from start to end. The product is called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, sold in wax-sealed bottles with unique identification numbers, and carries a Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) stamp from the EU.
It’s also very expensive. Typically, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale comes in 3.4 fl oz bottles and costs $25/fl oz on average.
Condimento Balsamico is also made in Italy, but its production is less regulated and the requirements are less strict compared to Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.
The European Union doesn’t have a Protected Designation of Origin stamp for Condimento Balsamico, but the state of Italy has a stamp called I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, which translates as P.G.I. or Protected Geographical Indication).
To get the most authentic and highest-quality product, buy only Condimento Balsamico that carries an Italian P.G.I. stamp.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a type of balsamic vinegar that also carries an P.G.I. (Protected Geographical Indication) stamp from Italy.
It’s considered a lesser-grade balsamic vinegar by Italians who call it salad vinegar in their native language. The I.G.P. requires vinegar producers to use grapes between 20% and 80%, wine vinegar between 10% and 80%, and permits the use of caramel up to 2%.
Balsamic vinegar is the general kind of balsamic vinegar that doesn’t conform to the requirements of the P.D.O. and P.G.I.’s and is sold as “balsamic vinegar” in most grocery stores.
It’s significantly more affordable than any of the traditional Italian products, but is also lesser-grade than them and doesn’t offer the rich aromatics, depth of flavor, and viscous texture.
Rice vinegar, also known as rice wine vinegar, is made by fermenting the sugars in rice into rice alcohol, then fermenting the newly-obtained alcohol into acetic acid.
The most common use for this vinegar variety is for flavoring sushi rice and making dip for spring rolls.
Rice wine vinegar has an acidity level of 4-7%. Compared to other vinegar varieties, it has a milder and sweeter taste, and a thicker and stickier texture.
You’ll find rice wine vinegar in most asian grocers, as well as in the Asian food aisle in supermarkets.
Red Wine Vinegar
Red wine vinegar is made by fermenting red wine. It has a ruby red color, a tangy taste of sour wine, and 6-7% acidity level.
It’s best to use red wine vinegar for cooking red meat and making hearty stews with a wine, tomato, and/or paprika-based sauce.
White Wine Vinegar
White wine vinegar is made from white wine. It has a pearl to light amber color, a sour and slightly tangy taste, as well as a thin and watery texture.
Use white wine vinegar for pickling vegetables, seasoning salads and sautéed vegetables, and deglazing frying pans to build a sauce with an aromatic and acidic base.
Typically, white wine vinegar has an acidity level of 6-7%.
Sherry vinegar is a Spanish wine made from sherry wine, a naturally sweet wine made from Palomino grape and fortified with grape brandy. A “fortified” wine is a wine to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy, is added.
Sherry vinegar is considered a gourmet vinegar. Traditionally, it should only be made from grapes grown near the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain’s Andalucía province.
It’s aged in 500-liter casks made of American oak previously soaked in sherry. However, the PDO regulations also allow the use of other containers made from oak or chestnut wood holding up to 1,000 liters.
Sherry vinegar that conforms to the traditional vinegar-making requirements carries a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) stamp from the European Union and the state of Spain.
How Long Does Vinegar Last?
According to The Vinegar Institute, vinegar has an unlimited shelf life thanks to its acidic levels. As any other food product, the texture, taste, and smell of vinegar naturally degrades over time.
It doesn’t require refrigeration or any special care from your side. When properly stored, an unopened bottle of vinegar will keep its best quality for 5 years, and an opened bottle for 2 years.
Store bottles of vinegar in a cool and dry place away from sources of heat and direct sunlight. The best place for an unopened bottle of vinegar is your pantry. Once opened, vinegar is best stored inside a kitchen cabinet, where it’s also handy for your cooking.
If you suspect that the vinegar in your pantry is too old, give it a whiff and taste-test a teaspoon of it to assess its quality. If it doesn’t smell or taste off to you, consume it. If the vinegar seems to have lost its appealing attributes, use it as a cleaning agent or throw it in the bin.
Household Uses for Vinegar
The most common uses for vinegar are as an ingredient in your food and, for some vinegar varieties like white vinegar, as a household cleaner.
Using Vinegar in Your Home Cooking
Vinegar brightens the flavor of your food, giving it an acidic kick and an intense aroma.
Eat vinegar raw in salad dressings or drizzled on grilled veggies, or cook with it as an ingredient in sauces, soups, and stews, which will add depth of flavor and aromatics to your home-cooked meals.
Most home cooks also use vinegar for marinating meat and pickling vegetables. 1-2 teaspoons of vinegar are commonly added to the water when making poached eggs as it helps the egg whites to become firm faster.
Vinegar breaks down the structure of proteins, which is why it makes red meat, poultry, and seafood more tender when it’s used as an ingredient in marinades. It also kills some germs, like E.coli and Salmonella, and extends the shelf life of food, which is why it’s used for pickling.
Occasionally, a dessert recipe might call for vinegar as it adds a kick and helps to balance out the sweetness.
Using Vinegar for Cleaning and Sanitization
Some home cooks use a 1 part vinegar, 3 parts water solution as vegetable and fruit wash.
According to a 2003 study in the Journal of Food Protection, vinegar can inactivate viruses by as much as 95% when it’s used as a wash for strawberries.
A 2010 study found that a 10% malt vinegar solution was as effective as commercial cleaning wipes in killing the influenza A/H1N1 virus.
A quick check in an online retailer shows that diluted white vinegar can cost as little as $2.69/gallon compared to $2.69 for ⅓ gallons for most multi-purpose cleaners from consumer brands.
White vinegar is the best vinegar variety for cleaning since it’s colorless. This makes white vinegar suitable for an all-purpose cleaning spray (in a solution of 1 part vinegar, 1 part water), soap scum remover, candle wax remover, and stainless steel cleaner.
If you choose to use white vinegar as a household cleaner, there’s one thing you should know. Never mix white vinegar with bleach, ammonia, or hydrogen peroxide. Any of these solutions will create toxic gases.
Commercial Production of Vinegar
The Codex Alimentarius (or Food Code in Latin), a book of international standards for food-makers, defines vinegar as:
“A liquid, fit for human consumption, produced from a suitable raw material of agricultural origin, containing starch, sugars, or starch and sugars, by the process of double fermentation, first alcoholic and then acetous.”Codex Alimentarius
Notice two things here: raw material of agricultural origin and the process of double fermentation.
Here’s what this means (and why it’s fundamental for vinegar-making).
Vinegar is made by fermenting the liquids from a plant twice. In the first fermentation, the liquid becomes alcoholic, like red or white wine. In the second fermentation, the alcohol content is converted into acid, like red or white-wine vinegar.
First Fermentation: Starches and Sugars to Ethanol
To make the first fermentation happen, vinegar producers squeeze the juice out from a plant and mix it with brewer’s yeast. Vinegar can be made by adding living yeast to practically any plant-based liquid that contains starch and/or sugars.
Yeast is a single-cell microorganism that feeds on the starch and sugars in the liquid and produces carbon dioxide and ethanol. Apples, grapes, rice, grains, and potatoes can all be used for making vinegar.
The first fermentation of vinegar is the same fermentation process used for producing wine, beer, hard seltzer, and vodka.
Second Fermentation: Ethanol to Acetic Acid
For the second fermentation, the newly-obtained alcoholic liquid is exposed to (or enriched with) oxygen.
This invites acetobacter bacteria, a genus of acetic acid bacteria naturally present in the air we breathe and in our surroundings, to populate the liquid.
Acetobacter bacteria start to feed on ethanol, churning out acetic acid. This reduces the alcoholic content and raises the acidity level of the vinegar in the making.
When the liquid reaches the acidity level (typically 4-10%) that the producer is looking for, it’s bottled, branded, distributed, and sold as vinegar to consumers.
Making Your Own Vinegar at Home
The easiest way to make vinegar at home is by using something known as the mother of vinegar. I know it sounds to you like something that came out of the bloodiest Game of Thrones episode, but I promise you it’s simpler (and safer) than you think.
The Mother of Vinegar
The vinegar mother, also known as vinegar mother, is a small, stringy, and slimy mass found in commercially-sold bottles of unpasteurized and unfiltered apple cider vinegar.
It’s made of cellulose, the same substance that makes celery sticks crunchy, and is populated with living acetic acid bacteria.
Since I had such a bottle at home as I was writing this post, I reminded myself that a picture is worth a thousand words—and decided to show you how the vinegar mother looks like instead:
The next time you see this gelatinous membrane that food scientists call biofilm in a bottle of vinegar in your pantry, don’t panic.
Bottles of vinegar that come with the mother are entirely safe for you. These are the same bacteria that made the vinegar you’re about to consume in the first place.
Instead of grossing out over them (let’s be honest, they’re not the prettiest thing you’ve seen all day), you can put them to work for producing more vinegar at home.
Homemade Vinegar in Three Steps (And 30 Days)
Making vinegar at home is easier than most folks think.
To make vinegar at home, buy a bottle of unpasteurized and unfiltered apple cider vinegar sold with the mother of vinegar. Then mix some of it with beer or wine to produce a fresh batch of vinegar.
Here’s my simple, three-step guide:
- Pour 6 oz (or 400 ml) wine or beer into a jar or bottle.
- Pour 3 oz (or 200 ml) unpasteurized and unfiltered apple cider vinegar with the mother.
- Cover the jar or bottle’s mouth with a muslin or cheesecloth, securing it in place with a plastic band.
Store for 30 days in a cool and dry place away from sources of heat and direct sunlight.
If you’d like to make more or less vinegar, change the quantities and keep the proportions. Add twice the amount of beer or wine as you’re adding cider vinegar with vinegar mother.
The batches of vinegar that you make at home can have varying acidity levels. Though that’s fine for salad dressings and cooking with, it could make homemade vinegar unfit for canning and pickling.
Is Acetic Acid the Same as Vinegar?
Vinegar is a solution of acetic acid and distilled water. Depending on the variety, table vinegar can contain anywhere from 4% to 8% acetic acid. On the other hand, the acidity level of commercial vinegar, which is typically used for pickling, can be as high as 12%.
Acetic acid, also known as ethanoic acid or methanecarboxylic acid, is a weak acid used mainly for the production of vinegar, but also commonly found in many household cleaning products. Lesser-known applications for it include the production of inks, dies, and perfumes.
Who Discovered Vinegar
The word vinegar comes from vin aigre in Old French, which translates as acrid wine. The name entered into Middle English, and we continue to refer to this sour liquid today.
But humanity’s history with vinegar goes back a significantly longer way.
The first records of vinegar-making date back to 5,000 B.C. in Babylon, the Babylonian empire’s capital city. Babylonians were renowned beer brewers and winemakers.
The dominant narrative is that one day, someone discovered vinegar as a wine-making mistake. And they were courageous enough to try out this liquid as both a condiment and ingredient.
Vinegar wasn’t forgotten with the fall of the Babylonian empire. Traces of vinegar from 3,000 B.C. have also been found in Egyptian urns.
In Ancient Rome, vinegar was mixed with water and herbs in a drink known as posca for poor man’s wine, carried and drunk by soldiers in the Roman legion.
Vinegar is an ingredient and condiment humanity has been cooking with for thousands of years. With its sour and slightly sweet taste, it’s ideal for dressing salads, seasoning foods, and adding depth of flavor to soups, stews, and sauces.
Some vinegar varieties, like distilled white vinegar, are more versatile than others. Others, such as balsamic and sherry vinegar, are gourmet vinegar varieties used by chefs and enjoyed by foodies worldwide.
Where to Next?
Occasionally, one of this blog’s readers will email me to ask what’s my favorite this or that. When it comes to vinegar, Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar is, in my humble and honest opinion, the best vinegar that you can buy on the market today.
- BRAGG APPLE CIDER VINEGAR: The Bragg ACV Vinegar is made from organically grown apples, and offers various health benefits. To easily...
- ORGANIC INGREDIENTS: The Bragg ACV is raw, unfiltered, and crafted from organically grown apples. It is USDA certified organic, Non-GMO...
- MOTHER OF VINEGAR: The ‘Mother’ consists of strands of proteins, enzymes, and friendly bacteria that give the product its murky...
The best thing about it? It comes with the mother, which means you can mix some of it with beer or wine to make vinegar of your own. That, folks, is a pretty sweet (or should I say sour) deal.
By the way, thanks for reading this far. This is one of my lengthier posts. If you’re looking to dive even deeper into the amazing world of vinegar, a good book to get you started is Emma Marsden’s The Miracle of Vinegar.
- Amazon Kindle Edition
- Marsden, Emma (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
This book is by far the easiest to read, casually engaging, and wonderfully entertaining book I’ve read on the topic of vinegar. And it helps you find 150 uses for it. Believe me, you’ll end up surprised.