What is vinegar?
Vinegar is an acidic liquid that can be used in cooking, to make a vinaigrette or dipping sauce, or simply sprinkled over food that needs a little extra tang. As well as adding flavour, its acidic nature means that vinegar can be used in a variety of other useful ways. It can be used to preserve food, by pickling, added to marinades to help tenderise meat, or used with baking soda to make dough rise.
How is it made?
Vinegar is essentially a dilute acid, made from 5 to 8% acetic alcohol dissolved in water. The acetic acid is created by a process known as double fermentation. To begin with, this means fermenting natural sugars using yeast, like you would to make wine or beer. This will create alcohol, or ethanol, which is then fermented a second time, using acetic acid bacteria, to produce acetic acid.
You can make vinegar from pretty much anything that has a high sugar content, but it is often made using the same ingredients as popular alcoholic drinks. Thus, apples are used to make cider vinegar, and red or white grapes to make red or white wine vinegars. The base ingredient used to make a particular vinegar will alter its flavour profile and characteristics, so certain vinegars are preferred for certain tasks.
White wine vinegar
White wine is made using white grapes and has a light, fruity, tangy flavour. It works well in lighter, leaner dishes - in short, anything that you would accompany with a glass of white wine. Use a splash of white wine vinegar to deglaze the pan and make a tasty sauce when you’re pan-frying chicken or pork, as a marinade for poultry, or mixed into a fruity vinaigrette for a light salad.
Red wine vinegar
As you may have guessed, red wine vinegar is made using red grapes, and this gives it a bolder, fruitier flavour than white wine vinegar. Like white wine vinegar, it can be used to deglaze a pan, or to make a marinade or vinaigrette, but here it should be paired with bold, flavourful ingredients like red meat or cheese.
Champagne vinegar is a type of white wine vinegar that is made specifically using champagne grapes. It has a particularly refreshing, crisp flavour and is great for making delicate dressings.
Distilled white vinegar
Distilled, or spirit vinegar is a strong, cheap vinegar that can be made quickly using industrial processes. It can be made by distilling cheap ingredients, then re-fermenting the resulting high-alcohol liquid, or even by extracting ethanol from natural gases.
With its pungent smell and sharp taste, distilled alcohol has the potential to overpower more delicate flavours in your dish, although it can be used to counterbalance very sweet flavours. In general, it is used for tasks that require no subtlety, like pickling or as a non-toxic household cleaner.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is made from double-fermented apple pulp. It has a golden colour, like apple juice, and a strong, fruity flavour that is reminiscent of cider. It goes well with flavours you might pair with apples, and can be used as a marinade for pork, a fruity salad dressing, or in coleslaws and chutneys.
Unlike other vinegars, balsamic vinegar is not made using double fermentation. Instead, pressed grapes are left to age in oak barrels for between 12 to 25 years, creating a distinctively sweet zesty vinegar with a deep brown colouring.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes in either the province of Modena or its neighbour, Reggio Emilia. Both Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena) and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia) are protected by the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin, and are considered to be of the best quality. They are usually very expensive and sold in small bottles, like fine liqueurs. The balsamic vinegar available to buy in most stores is usually a cheaper mixture of true balsamic vinegar and wine vinegar, often with added ingredients like caramel, guar gum or cornflour.
Balsamic vinegar works well with both sweet and savoury flavours. It is also popularly mixed with olive oil to make a balsamic vinaigrette for dressing salads or dipping bread. Find out more about the perfect food pairings for balsamic vinegar with our handy guide.
Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice, or rice wine, and is particularly popular in East Asian cuisine. It has a milder, sweeter flavour than most vinegars, which means you can use it without fear of overpowering your dish. Use it in stir fries, marinades and salad dressings, or to season sushi rice or cooked vegetables
Malt vinegar is made from ale, and has a mellow, nutty, flavour and a chestnut brown colour. It is a popular condiment in the UK, where salt and malt vinegar are used to season French fries.
Also known as Chinkiang vinegar, black vinegar is a specialty of the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, and is a pantry staple for Chinese cuisine. It is made from a mix of fermented glutinous rice, wheat, and millet, and has a smoky, earthy, umami-rich flavour that pairs well with dumplings, duck, and dipping sauces.
As well as making everything taste better, vinegar may have several potential health benefits.
Vinegar is able to kill harmful bacteria and other microbes, which means it can be used as both a natural disinfectant and a food preservative to prevent the spread of disease. It may also be useful for treating skin infections and burns.
Blood sugar control
There are several studies to suggest that vinegar can help control blood sugar. This is particularly useful for people with type 2 diabetes, which is caused by insulin resistance, where cells fail to respond to the metabolic hormone insulin, causing sugars to stay in the bloodstream rather than being converted into energy. Taking vinegar appears to both improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar both in general (fasting blood sugar) and after a meal.
Maintaining heart health
Animal studies have shown that vinegar can help reduce several of the risk factors associated with heart disease, including blood triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood pressure. There is no evidence that this is also the case in humans, however, so more research is needed.
Vinegar is often advertised as an aid to weight loss, and to reducing belly fat in particular. It is possible that improved blood sugar control can help you feel fuller for longer, so you’re not tempted to snack, but there is very little evidence to support these claims. For more information, take a look at this article from our Food Mythbusters series: Does Vinegar Burn Fat?