The Differences Between the Six Most Popular Types of Vinegar
When it comes to pantry staples, vinegar is part of the big four, along with salt, pepper and oil. An acidic liquid produced through the fermentation of everything from alcohol to apples, it brightens and lifts anything it touches. And vinegar is unbelievably versatile, whether whisked into salad dressings, used to pickle vegetables or marinate meats, stirred into braises, or drizzled on top of a dish as a finishing touch.
But with so many vinegars on the market, how do you tell your white wine vinegar from your white distilled? And which works best for what purpose? We're breaking down six of the most popular and versatile vinegars, with a guide on what they taste like, how to use them, and ways to substitute one for the other:
Distilled White Vinegar
Made from 90% water and 5% grain alcohol, that has been fermented to form acetic acid, this most basic of vinegars is also very inexpensive, which is why almost everyone has a bottle (or jug) tucked away in their pantry.
What It Tastes Like: Highly acidic, very crisp and clean, and totally neutral; essentially, this is the tofu of vinegars.
How to Use It: That neutral flavor profile makes it the most versatile vinegar of the bunch — that's why its uses literally run the gamut from cooking to cleaning. So when you're not using it to scrub the gunk out of your microwave, it's a power player in the kitchen. Use distilled white vinegar to pickle vegetables or make faux fermented Instant Pot Sauerkraut, create condiments like homemade ketchup, or add tang to Potato Salad.
How to Substitute It: If you don't have distilled white vinegar, you can use other clear, clean-tasting vinegars like white wine vinegar or rice vinegar. Just remember that they're lower in acid, so you may need more to make up for the difference in tang.
Where to Buy It: Heinz All Natural Distilled White Vinegar, $9; amazon.com
White Wine Vinegar
Made with white wine instead of grain alcohol, it has a mellower, softer taste and less acid than its distilled white vinegar counterpart.
What It Tastes Like: While it's still relatively neutral (like distilled white vinegar), wine gives this vinegar a more rounded, nuanced, and fruity flavor.
How to Use It: Since it adds an acidic element without being overly aggressive, white wine vinegar is a lovely addition to light vinaigrettes and salad dressings, hollandaise and béarnaise sauces, and composed dishes such as Dijon Pork with Apples and Cabbage, Seared Tuna with Wasabi Butter, and Chef John's Eggplant Escabeche.
How to Substitute It: If you don't have white wine vinegar, you can use champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, or even a splash of actual white wine and a squeeze of lemon.
Where to Buy It: Colavita Aged White Wine Vinegar, $4; amazon.com
Red Wine Vinegar
As the name suggests, this highly popular vinegar is made with various types of fermented red wine.
What It Tastes Like: Quite sharp and tangy, it has smokier notes and a fuller body than you'll find in white vinegars. It also lends a rosy hue to foods.
How to Use It: Since it actually brings complex flavor (not to mention color) to the party, this isn't a wallflower vinegar. Red wine vinegar is intended to shine. Create savory condiments and garnishes, like vibrant Pickled Onions or Pickled Blueberries, as well as sprightly sauces like Romesco Dip and Argentinean Chimichurri, for slathering on steak and roasted meats.
How to Substitute It: Sherry vinegar will capture a bit of that smokiness, apple cider vinegar will replicate the sweetness, and white wine vinegar is similar in character without the dark color.
Where to Buy It: Pompeian Organic Red Wine Vinegar, $3; amazon.com
Apple Cider Vinegar
Enjoyed for its potential medicinal qualities (such as soothing upset stomachs and sore throats) as well as for its culinary uses, this smooth vinegar is made by fermenting pressed apples into alcohol.
What It Tastes Like: Because it's made with apples, this bright vinegar is tart, sweet, fruity, and only moderately acidic.
How to Use It: Practically drinkable in and of itself, apple cider vinegar is great in shrubs, sodas, and cocktails. It's excellent in sauces like Homemade Worcestershire, veggie sides such as Chopped Brussels Sprout Salad, and ideal in cool weather dishes like Shredded Apple Pork.
How to Substitute It: White wine or rice wine vinegar can be used as substitutes, but you might want to add a splash of lemon juice for a fruitier flavor.
Where to Buy It: Bragg Organic Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, $7; amazon.com
As opposed to a majority of other vinegars, balsamic isn't created with fermented alcohol. It's made by aging pressed grape juice in oak barrels, which thickens and concentrates over time. It varies wildly in quality (some of the lower-end options are essentially white vinegar with food coloring), and therefore, really runs the gamut when it comes to price.
What It Tastes Like: Dark, syrupy, sweet and molasses-like, it's arguably the most complex of the vinegars.
How to Use It: Balsamic vinegar is designed to take center stage, especially if you're in possession of a high quality bottle. That's why you should use it in simple preparations that allow it to stand out. Able to go either the sweet or savory route, try balsamic drizzled over everything from ice cream and fruit, to charcuterie platters, Grilled Vegetables and Caprese Salad. It can even be treated as a sauce for pasta, or used as a marinade or finishing touch for fish or chicken.
How to Substitute It: 1 tablespoon of red wine or apple cider vinegar can be combined with ½ teaspoon of sugar, as a reasonable substitute for balsamic vinegar.
Where to Buy It: Organic Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, $17; amazon.com
Popular in China and Japan, this delicate vinegar is made by fermenting rice wine. You can find plain rice vinegar or seasoned rice vinegar in stores, the latter of which often contains added salt and sugar.
What It Tastes Like: Sweet and very mild, it has considerably less acid than other vinegars.
How to Use It: Rice wine vinegar is perfectly matched with delicate ingredients like vegetables, starches, or fish. It's a must for seasoning Sushi Rice, an ideal dressing for Soba Noodle Salad, a crucial component in quick pickles, and a go-to for Asian-inflected dishes such as Kung Pao Chicken.
How to Substitute It: Apple cider vinegar is the best substitute by far for this mild and sweet vinegar.
Where to Buy It: Maruken Genuine Brewed Rice Vinegar, $8; amazon.com