Culinary Arts

A Guide to All the Cooking Vinegars You Need to Know

Written by MasterClass

May 10, 2019 • 4 min read

Sweet, sour, and packed with umami: vinegar is an indispensable ingredient in any chef’s pantry.

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What Is Vinegar?

Vinegar is a condiment derived from a second bacterial fermentation of alcohol or other raw ingredient containing sugar, like wine, beer, or rice. This fermentation produces an acetic acid that lends vinegar its tangy taste. The word comes from “sour wine” in French: vinaigre: vin (wine) and aigre (sour).

How Is Vinegar Made?

Vinegar is made through the fermentation of almost anything that contains natural sugars, from wine and beer to fruit. The introduction of yeast to the sugars produces alcohol, and subsequent introduction of bacteria through oxidizing or aging of that alcohol leads to acetic acid—the component responsible for vinegar’s signature sharpness and tart taste, with a hint of the original ingredient. (Hence why apple cider vinegar is reminiscent of cooked apple.)

What Are the Health Benefits of Vinegar?

Some people swear by a shot of apple cider vinegar every morning, and some people… don’t. While there are no major studies proving vinegar comes with the type of health benefits it usually gets credit for, it has been proven to help lower blood sugar levels and is thought to aid in weight loss. Animal studies have shown vinegar to be a potential aid in heart disease prevention. It’s not as good for you as, say, kimchi, but it’s not bad for you either.

The 7 Most Common Types of Vinegars and How to Use Them

  • RICE. Rice vinegar, known foremost as a crucial ingredient in sushi, is a staple vinegar in Asian cuisines. It’s mild, delicate sweetness softens the edges on other flavors—from ginger to sesame to bright fiery chillies—making it brilliant in salad dressings, lightly pickled vegetables, or mixed into rice.
  • WHITE DISTILLED. White distilled vinegar is made one of two ways: from grain-based ethanol or by diluting pure acetic acid with water in a lab. It’s a little aggressive to use in most cooking preparations, although it works wonders for a pickling or preserving need. It also has a long lineage as a household cleaning product and disinfectant. Combined with baking soda, it creates a potent (and frankly, impressive) cleaning agent. That two-birds, one-stone resume makes it the number one vinegar in the United States.
  • APPLE CIDER. Next on the US's most-popular vinegar list is apple cider vinegar, and for good reason: it’s big in flavor and has a reputation for everything from a digestive aid to a skin toner. Use it in a vinaigrette or in a long-simmered sauce with a kick, like adobo.
  • BALSAMIC. Italian balsamic vinegar is not made from wine, but it is made from wine grapes. Specifically, Italy's Trebbiano and/or Lambrusco grapes, seeds, stems, and skins all juiced and left to age in wooden wine casks for anywhere from two months to 25 years. Traditional balsamic is a sweet vinegar that's thick and syrupy—use it over desserts like vanilla ice cream or panna cotta, drizzled over fresh strawberries or shards of Parmesan or Pecorino or as a finishing touch on risotto or soup. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a little thinner in texture and not as refined in flavor, but is still aromatic and full-bodied enough to make a nice addition to salad dressings or as a glaze on caramelized red onions. Learn more about balsamic vinegar here.
  • WINE. As a category that includes red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar, and rice wine vinegar, wine-based vinegars bring a mid-level acidity and subtle sweetness to everything from salads to soups to salsa and even something in-between: here's lookin’ at you, gazpacho.
  • CHINKIANG/ZHENJIANG VINEGAR. Also known as Chinese black vinegar, Chinkiang vinegar is made by adding acetic acid and bacteria to rice or a grain like sorghum or wheat. The result brings a toasty, smoked flavor to many dishes in China’s culinary canon, notably, with fresh ginger as a dipping sauce for xiao long bao.
  • MALT. Without malt vinegar, fish and chips would be a shade of its former self. Malt vinegar is beer taken one step further: after the beer has been allowed to ferment into vinegar, the acid is then aged, giving it a mellow, toasty tang.

3 Recipe Ideas Showcasing Vinegar

  • Vinegar-Braised Chicken. Add ¾ cup vinegar (a wine variety or apple cider vinegar) to the braising liquid (about 3 cups water or stock).
  • Pickle brine. Combine 2 cups of distilled white vinegar with 4 tablespoons kosher salt and 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns and bring to a simmer. Pour over prepared vegetables in glass jars and let everything cool before sealing and sticking in the fridge.
  • Vinaigrette. Balsamic vinegars that haven’t spent as much time in wood casks are a great addition to things like salad dressing, where they can help give dimension on a subtler scale. Whisk 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar with 2 tablespoons of good olive oil and salt and black pepper (even a teaspoon of Dijon mustard if you like more of a kick) for a musky, sweet addition to fresh arugula or crudite. Try making Chef Thomas Keller’s vinaigrette here.

Find more culinary uses for vinegar in Chef Thomas Keller’s MasterClass on cooking techniques.