In my decades of calling myself a serious home cook, of hanging out in the kitchen and structuring my weekends around ambitious recipes I call “Saturday cooking projects,” there’s one thing I love above everything else: vinegar.
There’s nothing better than the acidic, tangy blast of vinegar, whether it’s the basis for a vinaigrette I dreamt up for a salad with fresh greens from my local farmers market, a final drizzle in a one-skillet dish, or even a few tablespoons consumed straight if my acid reflux is acting up (trust me, it works). When I travel, I seek out funkier vinegars that I might not find at home — last year in Bologna, Italy, I scoured the streets for a properly aged balsamic, fully prepared to spend hundreds of euros on my purchase. With balsamic, the good ones cost.
Years ago while visiting Nebraska, I stumbled into a vinegar-lover’s paradise. In the small town of Cody, Nebraska, I met George Paul Johnson, a former cattle rancher, who parlayed his farming and agriculture experience into a full-fledged small-batch vinegar operation that he both owns and runs. From him, I learned that making vinegar is an extremely complex scientific process. But once you’ve gotten a firmer grasp on one type, the door opens for you to learn more.
Don’t be intimidated — knowing which vinegars are good, and worth buying, is an ongoing process. Maybe you already love vinegar and want some tips on finding a new favorite. Or perhaps you know very little about vinegar overall, and as you’ve spent more time in your kitchen over the past year, you’re looking to get acquainted. Whichever the case, consider this your vinegar primer, and me your guide.
What is vinegar?
The art of making vinegar is not a new one. As ancient as alcohol, the earliest records of vinegar date to 3000 BCE, when Egyptians stored it in urns. Until relatively recently in that 5,000-year history, vinegar was slowly aged in wooden barrels, often for years. Now, vinegar is mass-produced, with few approaching vinegar-making with the same intentional slowness.
Either way, the vinegar-making process follows the same basic formula: As the fruit juices that make up the base of many vinegars ferment, yeast converts the naturally occurring sugar into alcohol. Thus enters acetobacter, or acetobacteria, which feeds on the alcohol, producing acetic acid. The “mother” is another byproduct of fermentation, an active culture that throttles the vinegar-making process forward once added to the juice, now rich in acetic acid. This mixture could sit anywhere from two to three months (or more depending on the vinegar in question) until the requisite sour, funky flavor comes forth.
The most common types of vinegar, what to look for, and how to use it
In recent years, there has been an uptick in new, social media-savvy vinegar brands selling an aesthetic that is clean, bright, and modern. Think companies like Brightland, based in California, or Pineapple Collaborative and its ever-popular apple cider variety, “the ACV.”
Choosing a vinegar from this ever-growing shelf full of options can be overwhelming. Let’s honor that. Here’s what to keep in mind while shopping for vinegar, and a few tips for how to use your new vinegar once you get home.
One of the most popular and accessible forms of vinegar, distilled white is a blank slate — a literal blank slate, as it’s clear in appearance and used for anything from marinating (and tenderizing) meats to cleaning. Use distilled white vinegar to marinate meat or fish, as the base in a salad dressing, or even in baking — alongside baking soda, distilled white vinegar acts as a leavening agent.
- Mother Earth Organic White Vinegar; from $4
Dark in color due to being aged over a long period of time, balsamic vinegar is chiefly produced in Modena, Italy, and has to meet strict requirements, including being made from particular grape varieties, in order to be labeled balsamic. Once you have a verified balsamic vinegar, the most obvious way to use it is straight from the bottle, drizzled over salads, toasts, or any number of other dishes. Vinegars can be used to amplify or balance out flavors, and balsamic is no exception. I put a few dashes in red sauces, which deepens them in a way I haven’t been able to replicate otherwise. White balsamic vinegar, made from white grapes, exists, too. I use the Ponte Vecchio white balsamic vinegar I found at an Atlanta market in a Bermudian lobster curry dish.
- Monari Federzoni 1912 Passion of Family Balsamic Vinegar of Modena; from $40
- Ponte Vecchio White Balsamic Vinegar; from $18
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar, made from fermented apples, is fruity in scent and flavor. This vinegar is best purchased without cloudy sediment lurking at the bottom of the bottle; instead, it should be clear and have a crisp, subtle smell of apples. In cooking, there are a number of ways ACV can be a secret tool. The Tex-Mex ground beef tacos I make quite often rely on ACV as a finishing sauce to bring the flavors of cumin, smoked paprika, ground coriander, and chile powder together.
Salad dressings are another fun use for ACV. I adore making my own vinaigrettes from scratch because I can customize the amount of salt, fresh herbs, and spice. My go-to is an apple cider vinaigrette: Along with ACV, I mix minced garlic, a few sprinkles of crushed red pepper flakes, raw honey, and kosher salt in a mason jar, then shake until it’s fully emulsified.
- George Paul Apple Cider Vinegar; from $10
Wine vinegars — red, white, and champagne — result when leftover wine and a mother culture have been fermented together. Similarly, sherry vinegars are sold on a spectrum from super-dark to ultra-light, all of which feature the nutty notes sherry is known for. Wine vinegars are a go-to for salad dressings and marinades, as well as flavor-enhancers for soups and other completed dishes.
Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice and is key to sauces, stir-fries, and other East and Southeast Asian dishes. Also known as rice wine vinegar when it is made from fermented rice wine, this vinegar variety is usually sweeter than other vinegars, while still adding a crisp acidity to completed dishes.
Malt vinegar is made from ale and English in origin. If you’ve ever had fish and chips, you know about this one. Crispy french fries pair beautifully with a malt vinegar and a dusting of salt.
- Heinz Gourmet Malt Vinegar; from $2
Darker is better, for both the bottle and the storage space. Once you’ve brought it home, avoid keeping vinegar in a sunny spot or near a stove where it could come into contact with a heat source. Glass-spigot vinegar dispensers look cute, but exposure to air will greatly impact a vinegar’s taste and flavor. A pantry or a cabinet are your best storage bets, and if stored properly, the shelf life of vinegar is indefinite.
Building out your vinegar collection takes time, research, and patience. But it’s worth it when you can pull out the perfect vinegar and, with one finishing splash, tie every meandering element of your dish together.
Nneka M. Okona is a writer from and based in Atlanta. She is the author of Self-Care For Grief, a guide for taking care of yourself while holding loss.
Michelle K. Min is a food photographer based in San Francisco.