{pantry 101} Guide to Using Vinegar

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.

Vinegar Mother

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!


22 Comments Add yours

  1. Awesome post – very interest as I’ve never really brushed up on my vinegars. I shall have to stock up 😀

    1. Deanna says:

      Thanks! One can never have too many vinegars, if you ask me 🙂

  2. Karen says:

    What a thorough report on vinegars. Last year we did a tasting of balsamic vinegar while in Italy. The authentic aged vinegar is so much different to the commercially made.

    1. Deanna says:

      That’s one thing I didn’t get to do when I was in Italy several years ago. I guess it gives me a reason to go back!

  3. lisabinegar says:

    Thanks so much for this tutorial! I tossed a bottle of vinegar a few months ago that had developed a “mother” and I had no idea what had happened to it and if it was still good or not. Now I know and will continue to use it. Thanks.

    1. Deanna says:

      You are welcome! Thanks for your comment! The mother is totally okay and doesn’t “hurt” your vinegar – keep on using it!!

  4. Nice post – very interesting! Apple Cider Vinegar with the “mother” is also excellent for alleviating acid reflux! 2 Tablespoons a day with water and I was off my acid reflux medication! 🙂

    1. Deanna says:

      Great tip!! I get AR when I eat too many tomatoes (or drink too much coffee!!). This is an excellent remedy!

  5. Gail Palmer says:

    I already had Apple Cider Vinegar on my shopping list because I plan to make pickles today… but I added Champagne Vinegar after reading your post. I love a nice home-made dijon dressing but I’ve never made it with Champagne Vinegar… can’t wait to taste it.

    1. Deanna says:

      The Champagne Vinegar is just lovely, in my opinion – light, slightly sweet, just perfect! Good luck with your pickle-making! Let us know how it goes.

      1. Gail Palmer says:

        My local store didn’t stock Champagne Vinegar but I’ll track it down. Pickles are pickling… they should be D-Lish very soon and I can’t wait to munch on them.

  6. dorothybloom says:

    The apple cider vinegar treatment was well known throughout the past century and my aunt, Fern Lincoln, who brought me up, was a product of the 19th century and I used to despise what I though of as showing off when she downed a quarter of a glass of cider v inegar, so my opinions are clouded by my sense that these folk remedies were so old-fashioned and unscientific. She probably suffered from acid reflux (what she called sour stomach.) But what I don’t understand is why anything as acid as vinegar should have
    beneficial effect on acid reflux. But I don’t want to end on this slightly negative note. I love what vinegar can do to foods, like my white bean soup for instance, that responds so perfectly to a tbs. of vinegar to brighten it up without the addition of salt.
    Dorothy Bloom

    1. Deanna says:

      Dorothy, I know what you are saying – Acid to beat acid? Maybe it’s like how oil cleans oil. Weird stuff!

  7. Kate H. says:

    I’ve got all of these on my shelf and use them a lot. My only snow day this year I made pickled carrots with cider vinegar and pickled red onions with red wine vinegar. My current favorite is Sherry, it’s a little expensive but it’s delicious.

    I’d like to try and make my own vinegars this summer, after reading Katie Payne’s description I’m excited to find another use for my peels and cores.

    1. Deanna says:

      Katie, I also use my apple peels/cores to make apple jelly. So delicious and the most amazing pink color I’ve ever seen in my life! I love your pickling prowess, and I can’t wait for pickling season to come this spring/summer!

  8. Paul says:

    Great post! If I may, I’d like to suggest that one other thing to look for when shopping balsamic vinegar is whether or not the ingredient list includes ‘grape must.’ If so, it’s usually a lesser quality version. (of course this is typically reflected in the price…)

    1. Deanna says:

      Paul, you are right about grape must. It’s not just balsamic that you’ll see that, either, but all vinegar. The difference is the highly-regulated process of making balsamic. For other vinegar, the term “grape must” is fine.

  9. fantastic! i thought vinegar was so gross as a kid, and now i use or eat it every day.

    for a more fragrant cleaner, i’ve been setting aside a little jug of white vinegar and adding our discarded orange peels to it. eventually i strain it, cut it with water, and use for general cleaning.

    1. Deanna says:

      I do the same thing with my orange peels (From Scratch Club had a table at a local farmers market yesterday, and I brought my orange-vinegar solution with me)! Great minds think alike! I also find it works really well straight-up to keep ants out of the house, and that the orange oil from the peels is like magic to clean up oil/grease, cleaning hub caps, and anything else that gets extra-grimy.

  10. Amanda says:

    WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for play scrabble deluxe online

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