A helpful guide to different types of vinegar uses in cooking. Learn how its made, the common types available, key flavor profile distinctions, and culinary applications.
These days, everyone has fermentation on the brain, and for good reason. The fermentation of many food products gives a new life, flavor profile and health benefits to things with seemingly benign origins. Vinegar is one such product, though it’s not often thought of in the same fermented chain as things like kimchi, kombucha, and bread.
Vinegar is made from ethanol fermentation–an acidic liquid, by nature. This also means that any liquid containing ethanol–wine, beer, cider, grain alcohol–is fair game for making vinegar. Bacterial cultures are used to break down the ethanol into byproducts, which include acetic acid and other vitamins, minerals and flavors.
When used with cooking, it’s primarily to balance other flavors with its sour and tart notes. Different kinds of vinegar with different origins can lend other characteristics, too, like the sweetness of balsamic or sherry vinegar.
Here is a guide to provide some insight into the common types of vinegar and its uses.
Distilled White Vinegar
This is the standard clear kind of vinegar most people have in their kitchens. Created from pure ethanol, so it has a harsh flavor. It can be found in recipes, like ketchup, salad dressings, and pickles, however not recommended for homemade vinaigrettes. It can also be used as a natural cleaning agent when diluted with water.
White Wine Vinegar
The fruity flavor is excellent for lighter vinaigrettes, rich sauces, and pickling are ideal uses for white wine vinegar, which is less punchy than red wine vinegar. It’s good to use when color is a factor, too, as it won’t change the color of any dish. A good choice for hollandaise sauce or creamy potato salads.
With a stronger flavor than white wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar is still lighter than most other types. It’s best used not during cooking, but in a finish like a complimentary salad dressing or condiment.
Made from fermented rice wine, rice vinegar or rice wine vinegar is sweeter and less acidic (4% acidity) than many other kinds of vinegar. It’s ideal for recipes like meat and fish marinades, along with Asian dipping sauces. It’s sold as “seasoned” made with salt and sugar which is better for sushi rice or dressings, or unseasoned rice vinegar for cooking.
Apple Cider Vinegar
The darling of the health food world, apple cider vinegar is purported to have many health benefits apart from its cooking uses. Its laid-back tartness and fruit notes make it a versatile cooking tool since it won’t overpower most things and dressings. It compliments recipes with fruit, coleslaw and barbecue sauce.
Sherry is a fortified Spanish wine, so off the bat, sherry vinegar will have a strong, caramel flavor. It’s great for meat marinades and pan sauces, as well as flavorful vinaigrettes.
If you’ve had fish and chips, chances are you’ve tried this vinegar. Made from malt, it has an inherently yeasty taste.
Red Wine Vinegar
Vinaigrette, dressings, and marinades are all fair game for this popular vinegar made from red wine. It has a robust, acidic taste (7% acidity), slight sweetness, and pairs well in recipes with bold sauces like chimichurri and Greek dressing.
Unlike other vinegar, which is made from alcohol, balsamic vinegar is made directly from grapes that ferment in oak barrels. Made in Italy, many can be considered a specialty and luxury product. The flavor is sweet and syrupy. This vinegar can be aged but are more expensive, and they’re best used to drizzle. Younger balsamic vinegar that is found more often in grocery stores can be used in recipes with olive oil for salad dressings or reduced to a thicker sauce for meats and vegetables.
Cooking with Vinegar
Cooking with vinegar can be very versatile. It’s often used to balance out fats, like in salad dressings or with cheese, lending brightness and cutting the heaviness. Its low pH level is also used in leavening processes since it can activate baking soda. In marinades, vinegar also helps break down meat fibers, tenderizing in addition to flavoring it.
Vinegar has been linked to controlling blood sugar spikes, increasing “good” HDL cholesterol levels and aiding in weight loss. Vinegar, being inherently gluten and soy-free, are suitable for special diets like Whole 30, Paleo or soy allergies as they can lend acid and astringency to recipes without any health risks. The only two that aren’t good for gluten-free diets are malt vinegar which is derived from barley, and white distilled vinegar which contains trace amounts of gluten.
Since vinegar is an acid, you can store them indefinitely without refrigeration. Its high acidity will prevent bacteria from growing, but non-pasteurized kinds of vinegar may eventually spoil, so it’s best to refrigerate them and keep an eye on it as time goes on.