When it comes to stocking your pantry, the cupboards would not be complete without a bottle of vinegar. It’s an unbeatable ingredient for boosting flavor, pickling and preserving foods, and adding a splash of acidity to everything from marinades, dressings and even fresh fruit. It even comes in handy when it’s time to clean up!
Vinegar starts with foods that contain natural sugar, such as grapes, apples, barley or rice. The food is fermented, which makes alcohol, and then fermented longer to make vinegar. If you’ve left a bottle of red wine open too long, you’ve seen the process happen first hand. The result is a tangy, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour ingredient that lends balance to so many dishes.
There are a lot of varieties of vinegars out there, and many are interchangeable. But different types have slightly different flavors and textures, from mouth puckering and light to sweet and syrupy. So use this guide to figure out which ones you want to have on your shelves.
This distilled vinegar is clear as a bell and the only one not actually made from food. Made by fermenting grain alcohol or acetic acid, the result is too sour and sharp for most recipes.
Use: for pickling vegetables and as a cleaning agent. White vinegar takes stubborn stains and odors out of cutting boards and helps cut grease when cleaning the stovetop.
These vinegars can be made from red wine, white wine, sherry or champagne, and each has its own special something. The rule is that the better the wine, the better the vinegar, but with so many different styles and flavors, from pungent to floral to woody, it’s best to let your palate decide.
Use: in sauces, marinades, dressings and as a drizzle over steamed veggies. Red and white wine vinegar can be swapped in most recipes, but keep in mind that white wine vinegar tends to be a tad more mellow and red wine vinegar can change the color of dressings. Sherry vinegar from, you guessed it, sherry is aged in oak so it takes on a deeper flavor. Champagne vinegar’s light and fresh style is too delicate for the heat, so save this precious vinegar for dressings.
Made from white Trebbiano grape, this unfiltered vinegar is also a wine vinegar. But its deliciousness makes it worthy of its own section. Traditional balsamic vinegar comes from Italy, specifically Modena or Reggio Emilia. Makers leave the Trebbiano grapes on the vine to maximize their natural sugar before pressing them to produce juice, or must. The must is cooked until it reduces to a beautiful deep, rich, dark color before being aged for anywhere from 12 to 25 years in different wood barrels. These days fewer makers use this traditional process. You’ll know if you’re looking at it by the price (expensive) and the label (which will say Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale).
Commercial balsamic vinegars don’t have the same requirements for aging in wooden barrels for at least 12 years, so there can be a huge range in the vinegar’s sweet and sour flavor. Some will have been aged as little as 3 years in steel barrels, while others can be aged much longer in wood. Read your labels and skip any that include caramel in the ingredients. This indicates that the maker has added caramel to deepen the color and up the sweetness of very young vinegar. To learn more, check out this video.
Use: for marinating meat, in sauces and stews, dressings, vinaigrettes and drizzling over fresh fruit and panna cotta. Just keep in mind that the longer the vinegar ages, the sweeter, thicker and more expensive it becomes, so treat the old-timers like gold.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Hugely popular in the U.S., this vinegar is make from pressed apples that have fermented to form alcohol and then vinegar. The result is a touch fruity with a slightly softer edge.
Use: in chutneys, sauces, marinades and vinaigrettes. It’s also taken medicinally as a home remedy for a host of common ailments from bad breath to high cholesterol.
The secret ingredient in sushi rice, rice vinegar has a softer, mellower flavor that’s both sweet and tart. The harder-to-find red and black varieties have a fuller flavor, with a tinge of smoke in the black.
Use: in stir fries and Asian-style dressings
Made from barley that’s been brewed into beer and fermented further to make vinegar, this malted type is used widely in Britain to liven up fish and chips.
Use: on fish and chips