Vinegar is a cooking and baking staple that can be found in most pantries, but there are so many types of vinegars it is hard to know which one to use when. Everything from big jugs of distilled white vinegar to intricate glass bottles of artisanal aged balsamics are widely available, and with so many choices picking the right one can be daunting. Keeping just a few vinegars in your arsenal (that suit your tastes and cooking styles) is enough to help you pull off nearly any recipe.
To begin with – what is vinegar? Well, vinegar can basically be made from any liquid/juice that contains sugar. Similar to the fermentation of wine, beer and spirits, vinegar relies on the conversion of sugars to alcohol. But vinegars go one step further by using a secondary bacterium to convert alcohol to acid (giving vinegar that bite that is hard to find elsewhere). Because wine and vinegar are so close in molecular make-up, it is easy for wine making process to “go bad” and result in vinegar (hence all the white/red wine or champagne vinegars on the market, though what is commercially available is made into vinegar on purpose). The literal translation of vinegar is “bad wine” after all. So basically, anything you can make an alcoholic beverage out of, you can make vinegar out of (apples, grapes, malt, rice, etc.).
So, how do you know what vinegar to buy and how to use it? In my opinion, there are four vinegars that every household should have on hand. They include:
Distilled White Vinegar Distilled white vinegar is an amazing product, mostly because it’s cheap, it comes in a big container, and it can be used in myriad ways. Anyone home-canner will probably have a gallon or two of white distilled vinegar in their larder, as it is often the base of many pickling recipes. Vinegar is also my go-to cleaning agent – I use it on everything from my floors to countertops to windows to bathroom fixtures. This vinegar is made primarily from grains, is distilled (like vodka would be, minus the alcohol) and can also be used as the base for marinades, dressings and sauces. A little distilled white vinegar can also be used to sour milk (for a quick buttermilk substitute).
Apple Cider Vinegar Apple cider vinegar is very acidic, though not as much as distilled white vinegar, and is often sold in its natural state with the “mother” attached (keep reading for information on vinegar mothers). Apple cider vinegar (or ACV) is great for making hearty condiments like ketchup and barbeque sauce, and the slight sweetness of the ACV pairs well with tomatoes. ACV is also a good remedy for stuffy heads and noses – add a little to your humidifier (you’ll have to clean the filter more frequently) or simmer a pot of water with a cup of ACV and a lemon cut into quarters to create a gentle steam. Place a towel over your head and breathe in the favors for a few minutes. It should help clear sinus troubles in no time.
Wine Vinegar I know this is kind of a broad statement – everyone should have wine vinegar in their homes!! – as LOTS of different wines are technically “wine” vinegars. But the three basic, affordable wine vinegars (red, white and champagne) tend to have a mellower taste than distilled white vinegar or cider vinegar. This makes them perfect for more delicate dishes like vegetable sides, fish, and light dressings, though the red wine variety is strong enough to hold up to red meats. Think of it this way: Whatever wine you would drink with that dish is the wine vinegar you should be cooking with. Keep at least a red wine vinegar and a champagne vinegar in your cabinet (combine the champagne vinegar with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little bit of Dijon mustard for an incredibly delicious salad dressing). Sherry vinegar also counts as a wine vinegar, though it is often aged in wood barrels and has a much stronger taste.
Balsamic Vinegar Balsamic vinegar is the most distinct and strongest tasting of the vinegars listed here. It is made primarily from white grapes and is aged for several years (most are aged around 12 years). Because it was once a delicacy reserved for the upper crust of Italian society, it is a highly regulated product that must meet a variety of standards. Balsamic vinegar typically comes in two forms – the traditional, “real” balsamic, and a more commercial product that combines a lesser former of “real” balsamic vinegar and boiled-down wine vinegar. If you want the real thing, look for the word tradizionale on the label, or a seal from the Italian Association of Tasters for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (AIB). This will ensure that your balsamic is made in the traditional method. Not that the “commercial” variety is bad, because there are many brands that are quite tasty, it just isn’t really balsamic vinegar. Use the commercial variety for boiling down into a sauce (my favorite method is boiling down this vinegar and adding some apricot jam to glaze roast chicken with), or use it in salad dressing. It also lends a heartiness to pan sauce if used in the deglazing process.
Tradizionale balsamic is more expensive and can be aged 100 years or more (the longer it ages, the stronger the taste and the higher the price tag). I try to keep a small bottle of good balsamic in the house for a quick drizzle on tomatoes, cheese or ice cream (preferably strawberry or vanilla!), or to grace a small bowl of good olive oil with and dip crusty bread into. It is a simple pleasure I like to indulge in. Right now I have a fig flavored balsamic – you can find balsamic flavored with many things, like figs and berries. Buy real balsamic in small quantities as a little goes a LONG way.
There are many other varieties of vinegars that impart distinct flavors on your cooking experiments. Fruit vinegars add a zippy sweetness that reflect the fruit from which it is made (raspberry seems to be popping up more frequently). Asia cooking relies on vinegars made from rice (which has a very subtle, non-complex flavor, and comes in white, red, or black varieties), coconut, and palm. Middle Eastern cuisine uses raisin or date vinegars, while beer and malt vinegars are popular in northern Europe (malt vinegar and salt is a British classic for crisps or fish and chips). Vinegar can even be made from kombucha. Vinegar adds a “brightness” to recipes that is hard to rival, but in a pinch citrus juice (especially lemon or lime) can be used to replace vinegar.
Store vinegar in a cool, dry play (like a pantry) and try to use within a year of opening the bottle. Vinegar doesn’t go “bad,” per se, but it can lose its flavor the longer it is open. Sometimes vinegar will develop a “mother.” The mother is a cellulose product that contains bacteria from the vinegar-making process. Most vinegar is pasteurized so that the mother will not develop, but it sometimes still can. It certainly isn’t bad, and the vinegar is still useable. Just strain it out (and save the mother to make your own vinegar – our buddy Kate Payne has a great how-to on the matter).
Don’t hesitate to experiment with vinegar. Try using different varieties to make pickles (just make sure your vinegar has an acidity level of at least 5%), and concoct a bunch of dressings and sauces to introduce new flavors to family meals. If you have any unique vinegars you rely on or have some fun ideas and tips for using vinegar, please share them in the comments!