Whether it’s your favorite french fry topping, your go-to household cleaner or just a bottle collecting dust in the back of your pantry, odds are you have a bottle of vinegar on hand. And regardless of your feelings about it as a condiment, it’s worth knowing about all the types of vinegar you can cook with. After all, it might end up being the difference between a good dish and a fantastic one (or, you know, a last-minute jar of quick-pickled onions).
11 Types of Vinegar to Keep In Your Pantry (Plus, What They’re Good For)
What is vinegar?
The word vinegar comes from the Old French word for sour wine. To get scientific, vinegar is a solution of water and five to eight percent acetic acid (and sometimes flavor compounds), made by a two-step fermentation process. When yeast feed on the sugar or starch in a plant liquid (like from fruit, grains or potatoes), the liquid ferments into alcohol. Then, the alcohol is exposed to oxygen and a bacteria called Acetobacter and ferments again over weeks to months. The result is the sour liquid you know as vinegar, and it can be used as a tenderizer in marinades, an acidic element in salad dressings, a pickling liquid, a condiment and even a household grime-fighter. (It’s also found in things like ketchup and mayonnaise, and can be used to make homemade yogurt and cottage cheese.)
Is vinegar good for you?
Since it’s mostly water, vinegar is low in calories and fat, but it doesn’t contain many nutrients either. One study from the University of Minho found that fruit-based vinegar can contain antioxidant levels similar to the fruit it was made from, but the science is limited on any major health benefits. On the flip side, since it’s highly flavorful and low-cal, it’s a great ingredient to add dimension and flavor in bland-but-healthy meals.
Does vinegar go bad?
Good news: That bottle of vinegar that’s been lurking in the cabinet since God knows when is likely still perfectly fine. That’s right, vinegar does not go bad. Due to its high acid content, vinegar won’t spoil and it doesn’t require refrigeration. However, unless it’s distilled white vinegar you’re dealing with, you’ll probably notice some harmless sediment and color changes as the product ages.
How to buy and store vinegar:
Have you ever looked at your grocery store’s vinegar aisle and quickly walked away in fear? Us too. There are myriad options to choose from, but it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. When buying plain old white vinegar, there’s no need to splurge. But if you’re looking for a fancy flavored vinegar, the price will be a good indicator of quality. (You could take a whole course on how to buy balsamic vinegar, but look for designations like “aceto balsamico tradizionale” and grape must as the first or only ingredient.)
There’s no need to store vinegar in the fridge; just keep it in its original container and stash it in a cool spot out of direct sunlight to preserve its quality.
11 Types of Vinegar to Keep In Your Pantry:
1. Distilled White Vinegar
It doesn’t get more basic than distilled white vinegar. It’s made from distilled alcohol (like vodka) and tastes sharply acidic with not much else going on in the flavor department. It’s inexpensive, easy to find and ultra-versatile—we use it for pickling vegetables and adding interest to potatoes, and as a non-toxic cleaner around the house. You can buy food-grade white vinegar at five percent acidity or cleaning vinegar at slightly higher levels. (Our preferred brand is Heinz.)
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is made from—you guessed it—apples (or, more specifically, apple cider). It’s sour and a little sweet with a light golden color that looks like apple juice. You can use it anywhere you would use white vinegar, but t’s commonly found in salad dressings and marinades. (We like it in this agrodolce treatment for winter squash.) Bragg is a popular brand, but we also love Pineapple Collaborative’s “The ACV” for its surprisingly apple-y flavor.
3. Rice Vinegar
A staple in many East and Southeast Asian cuisines, rice vinegar is made from fermented rice. Japanese rice vinegar is mild and mellow, and you can buy it “seasoned” or “unseasoned.” (Seasoned rice vinegar is sweetened with sake, sugar and salt.) Chinese rice vinegars are much stronger and range in color from clear to red to black. In Korea, it’s made with either white or brown rice, and in Vietnam, you can find spicy versions. Rice vinegar is an essential ingredient in sushi rice, and it makes a great milder substitute for white vinegar in salad dressings and slaws. Marukan is our brand of choice at standard grocery stores.
4. Red Wine Vinegar
Red wine vinegar starts as red wine, and it tastes more fruity and complex than basic white vinegar—like red wine. Because it’s more robust than other vinegars, it pairs well with red meats (like in a chimichurri with steak). If you want the best flavor, you don’t want to buy the basement bottle of red wine vinegar, but you don’t have to drain your bank account either. Napa Valley Naturals makes an affordable and well-reviewed option, or try American Vinegar Works for a responsibly sourced and very tasty vin.
5. White Wine Vinegar
Like red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar starts with wine, only this time it’s white. It’s light and delicate tasting, so it’s great for poultry dishes, refreshing salads and to deglaze your sauté pan for a quick sauce. If you’re not sure which wine vinegar to use, think about what type of wine you would drink with the dish. (FWIW, we like the white wine vinegar from Napa Valley Naturals.)
6. Champagne Vinegar
At the risk of sounding redundant, Champagne vinegar is made from, well, Champagne. It’s even more delicate than white wine vinegar, with a fruity, floral, almost vanilla flavor profile. You don’t have to save it for special occasions, though. Champagne vinegar makes excellent salad dressings, especially when combined with lemon and garlic. We recommend Brightland’s version, which is made from California chardonnay grapes and navel and Valencia oranges.
7. Balsamic Vinegar
Dark and syrupy, balsamic vinegar is made from grapes that have been cooked before being fermented. It has a protected designation, so to be called “aceto balsamico tradizionale,” it can only be made in Italy’s Modena and Reggio Emilia regions and has to be barrel-aged for a minimum of 12 years. Traditional, authentic balsamic vinegar is tasty enough to eat by the spoonful, or we suggest trying it drizzled over a caprese salad. The good stuff is pricy but worth it—a few ounces can cost $100-plus. (For a less splurgy option, try this American version from Brightland.)
8. Sherry Vinegar
Similar to balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar (which is made from sherry, a type of fortified wine) has a protected designation. It hails from the Cadiz province of southwestern Spain and must be aged for at least six months. It’s caramelly and nutty, and gets more complex the longer it’s aged. But unlike balsamic vinegar, there’s a smaller range in terms of quality. (Basically, you’re less likely to buy a bad bottle and there are fewer imitations on the market.) Add a bottle of Columela to your shelf and put a splash in your next batch of soup for a boost of brightness.
9. Malt Vinegar
A requirement for fish and chips, malt vinegar starts with malted barley (like beer). It has a distinct toasty flavor with a hint of lemony acidity, which makes it great for cutting through fatty, rich dishes. Though it’s most well-known as a British condiment, you can find Heinz malt vinegar readily available in American grocery stores.
10. Black Vinegar
Technically, black vinegar is a type of rice vinegar. It’s integral in Chinese cuisine and prized for its earthy, umami flavor, which comes from a six-month (or longer) aging process. Black vinegar varies depending on where it’s made: In southern China, Zhenjiang vinegar is made from sticky rice, whereas in northern China, Shanxi vinegar is made from barley, sorghum and wheat. How it’s used also depends on the region it comes from, but a dressing made from equal parts black vinegar, soy sauce and oil is universally delicious. (Luckily, you can find black vinegar at Asian grocers and online.)
11. Fruit Vinegars
Because vinegar is a byproduct of fermentation, it can be made from any fermentable plant product. But some of the most common (and most appealing) varieties start with fruit. For example, umeboshi vinegar is made from the pickling liquid of Japanese ume plums. It’s tangy and sweet (as many fruit vinegars are) and can brighten up a roasted vegetable like nobody’s business.