Guide to Vinegars

When it comes to vinegar, you either love it or hate it and there's no question how we feel about the addictive, sweet-tart stuff that flavors everything from pickles and salad dressings to cocktails and desserts.

Vinegar — the word comes from the French vin aigre, meaning sour wine — tantalizes us with its vigorous pungency, a reminder of its prime importance as a food preservative since the dawn of human history.

We've known vinegar as long as we've known wine, using it as a food, flavoring and even folk medicine. It's made from the fermented juices of virtually any plant material, including rice, grain and fruit, and enjoys a distinguished place in the ongoing, ever-changing story of food. We think it deserves every minute in the spotlight.

Vinegar 101

With so many vinegars out there, where do we start? The answer depends on how you want to use them. Bearing in mind that different types of vinegars aren't always interchangeable, read on:

  • Asian vinegar: While early Westerners were fussing over sour wine, the Chinese and Japanese were perfecting the art of making vinegar from alcohol created from whole grains. Choices in this category—which includes rice and plum vinegars—range from quite savory to mild and sweet so experiment with using them in salad dressings, sauces, or as condiments on fish, vegetables and grain dishes.
  • Balsamic vinegar: The tradition of this beloved sweet Italian vinegar deserves a full page unto itself. But we know your time is important, so we'll cut to the chase. Genuine balsamic vinegar is made by artisans in the towns of Modena and Reggio, Italy from unfiltered, unfermented grape juice. It's aged for many years, sometimes for even more than a century. These days it's splashed on everything from salads and cheese to ice cream and cake, and we don't mind a bit.
  • Cider vinegar: Cider vinegar is the product of yeast-fermented apple juice, giving it a decidedly apple-like aroma and golden color. It's a great choice for mixed fruit and vegetable salads, marinades, chutneys and other robust condiments and pickles.
  • Distilled vinegar (a.k.a. white vinegar): The most popular vinegar in the U. S. It's used commercially for pickles, salad dressings and mustard. It's no secret that it's great for cleaning, too. (Feel like tidying up a bit? Click here for details on how to use vinegar to ease your household chores.)
  • Herb vinegar: Herb vinegars are made by steeping herbs—such as rosemary, basil or oregano—in vinegar, imparting herbal flavors later on to delicate sauces and vinaigrettes. (We know you like adventures, so why not make your own herb-infused vinegars?)
  • Malt vinegar: Unhopped beer—i.e. cereal grains and sprouted barley—is the source for malt vinegar. It's popular in Britain and Canada as a condiment for fish and chips, but don't underestimate its value for pickling, too.
  • Sherry vinegar: This artisanal vinegar has much in common with balsamic vinegar since it's dark and intensely flavored, with a sweet aftertaste. It's a terrific choice for fruit salads or vegetable salads featuring cheese.
  • Wine vinegar: The very best wine vinegars — white or red — are still made using the ancient Orléans process, requiring a lot of patience. Some commercially produced wine vinegars are not made from wine at all but from yeast fermented grape juice.

How Vinegar is Made (or, Another Reason to Thank the French)

Vinegar is alcohol's destiny, brought about by exposure to oxygen and specific types of bacteria that use alcohol as food, of course.

The slow, ancient method of making vinegar was perfected in medieval Orléans, France, born from a desire to salvage spoiled barrels of Burgundy and Bordeaux wine. (We wouldn't want to let it go to waste either!)

The Orléans process involved inoculating partially filled barrels of diluted wine with a vinegar "mother" from a previous batch and then allowing it to ferment, producing finished vinegar in about two to three months. (Curious about the "mother"? We thought so; keep reading.)

Cleaning with Vinegar

While celebrating the culinary magic of vinegar, we thought it wonderfully appropriate to highlight the eco-friendly cleaning aspects of vinegar as well. (We are Whole Foods Market, after all. We didn't get this eco-friendly reputation for nothing.)

Here are just a few of the ways vinegar can be used around the house. Oh, and unless we specify, any kind of vinegar can be used (and we use the cheapest stuff for cleaning!):

  • To clean lime deposits from hard water on sinks, place a cloth or a few paper towels tightly around fixtures, pour vinegar onto the towels and leave for 10 to 30 minutes.
  • To remove hard water buildup in your favorite tea kettle, simply fill with vinegar and let sit for about 30 minutes. Rinse well.
  • Clean drains by pouring 1/2 cup baking soda down first, followed by ½ cup vinegar, and then cover the drain for 10 minutes. Turn the faucet on and flush thoroughly.
  • To clean a coffee maker, pour half pot of vinegar in the reservoir and run it through the cycle. Then run one or two cycles of plain water.
  • Housebreaking a puppy or rescued dog? Clean up those little "accidents" on the carpet by applying full-strength white vinegar for about 10 minutes and then blot dry. (Test in an inconspicuous area to ensure the vinegar doesn't harm your carpet.)
  • Have fleas in the house? Pour 1 ounce of vinegar for every 6 ounces of water into a spray bottle then spray carpets, rugs and floors to get rid of the adult fleas. (Again, test the carpet in an inconspicuous area to ensure the vinegar doesn't harm your carpet.) Wait one week, then spray again to get rid of the offspring.
  • For a simple, effective cleaner for eyeglasses, mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a small spray bottle.
  • For windows and mirrors, combine 2 parts water, 1 part vinegar and a drop of liquid dish detergent.
  • To clean and deodorize your dishwasher, add a cup of vinegar to a dishwashing cycle.
  • Remove stains and oxidation from stainless steel and copper-clad cookware with a solution of two tablespoons of white vinegar mixed with two teaspoons of table salt.

The Mother of All Vinegar

The vinegar "mother" is actually a velvety, grayish film of living bacteria on the surface of the liquid being soured. Because the microbes that convert alcohol to vinegar require oxygen to do their work, only the portion of the wine exposed to air can be converted.

Unpasteurized (a.k.a. raw) vinegars may contain small amounts of the mother that created it. These are harmless and in fact are believed to be beneficial to digestion. Refrigerating vinegar will slow or stop the formation of the "mother."

Vinegar: Special Editions

Conceivably, any liquid containing sugar and starch can be made into vinegar once alcohol fermentation has begun. In various parts of the world, vinegars are made from raisins, dates, honey, sorghum, sugar cane and even rose petals.

You may find specialty vinegars in ethnic markets and occasionally at farmers' markets. Homemade vinegars aren't usually labeled for solution strength so care should be taken if you're using them to preserve foods.

Explore More

Guide to Pasta
Guide to Flours
The Perfect Antipasto Plate
Your Complete Guide to Citrus