Editor's Note: We're very excited to welcome writer, photographer, and cook Michael Harlan Turkell back to the virtual pages of Serious Eats. Michael recently traveled far and wide while doing the research for his awesome vinegar-focused cookbook, Acid Trip. You can order the book here.
When you hear the word "vinegar," does it conjure rows of inexpensive bottles on a supermarket shelf? If so, you're hardly alone—but you're also missing out. Those vinegars are fine for pickling, the occasional homemade vinaigrette, or spot-cleaning your rug, but there's also a vast world of complex, deeply flavorful artisan vinegars worth tapping into. Used properly, whether in marinades, vinaigrettes, sauces, cocktails, or desserts, high-quality vinegars have the potential to transform your cooking. They can enhance savory flavors, intensify sweetness, cut through saltiness, balance fattiness, and tone down heat.
That said, cooking with vinegar is a tricky thing. Use too much acid, and you risk overwhelming other ingredients; skimp on it, and you can wind up with a lackluster dish. And if you start with the wrong product, you may miss the mark entirely. The most important guideline? A good vinegar should be delicious—a little slurp should make you salivate and want more, not blow out your palate so you can't taste anything else.
In the US, vinegar is loosely defined as being a solution containing a minimum of 4% acetic acid. It can be made from a wide range of base ingredients, but the underlying process is essentially the same. Base ingredients that are rich in sugars—whether complex carbohydrates from starchy foods like rice, potatoes, and barley; or simple sugars from apples, grapes, and honey—are first fermented into an alcoholic product with the help of yeast. It could end there, and in some cases it does, yielding drinks like wine, beer, and mead.
The second step is what turns those alcoholic substances into vinegar. (Yes, that includes commonly drunk spirits like whiskey, although it's exceedingly rare to find such vinegars in the States.) This time, instead of yeast, the microorganism in question is acetobacter, sometimes also called acetic acid bacteria. It takes the alcohol, along with oxygen that's available, and converts them into acetic acid, the compound responsible for vinegar's sour, pungent flavor. Voilà, vinegar.
Traditional methods generally make use of slow fermentations that take a number of months, if not years, to finish. Industrial vinegars, however, can be made in a matter of hours or days using instruments like stainless steel tanks known as acetators, which pump oxygen through the liquid to promote faster fermentations into vinegar. This sped-up version of vinegar-making tends to strip away aromas and nuances that were once part of the base ingredient, producing a liquid that's devoid of any real character or backstory. What's left behind is often an insipid, throat-burning, cough-inducing vinegar that smells like nail polish remover and is better suited to shining windows than cooking.
Specifically, this means that you should stay away from distilled white vinegar. A so-called "spirit vinegar," this big-jug product can legally be made from distilled alcohol, ethanol, and even petroleum*. Many mass-market vinegar brands use distilled white as a base (combined with a heavy dose of caramel coloring and added flavors), so take a moment to look at ingredient lists before making a purchase. Good vinegar will consist of nothing more than the base ingredient, water, and time.
* This doesn't mean white vinegar is toxic, though—chemically, a synthetic alcoholic product made from petroleum isn't chemically different from one made from purified ethanol derived from a food source that's mixed with water. The point is rather that it's harsh in flavor and lacks any character beyond acetic acid itself.
So, what does good vinegar look like? How can you recognize quality? And what's the best way to use a particular type of vinegar? What follows is a guide to the most common varieties of vinegar on the market, with cues to help you identify the best ones. I'm also sharing some of my favorite brands for each category, though, fair warning—some are very hard to find, and many are not cheap.
Apple Cider Vinegar
A local apple orchard or cidery is a good place to seek out unadulterated vinegar, for those lucky enough to have access to such places. If they don't make their own apple cider vinegar on-site, you can also ask if they make unpasteurized apple cider, which is the perfect base for a DIY vinegar project. Apple cider is one of the simplest bases to ferment into vinegar because freshly pressed juice has such a high sugar content that it easily converts into hard cider, which ferments into cider vinegar in short order. To transform your cider into vinegar, simply leave it at room temperature, uncovered but protected with cheesecloth to keep fruit flies out. If the fermentation doesn't start quickly, you can add a little sugar to coax it along.
When shopping for a good apple cider vinegar, look for one that's well filtered. Apple particulates tend to re-ferment, causing the vinegar to taste a little too yeasty over time, so the less sediment clouding the bottle, the better. It should have a round flavor, with a bit of fruit on the nose and a little sweetness. Think of biting into a fresh apple: You're looking for something refreshing, bright, and balanced, not mouth-puckeringly tart.
Apple cider vinegar has become my go-to for preparations as diverse as barbecue sauces and shrubs. Because it tends to be a little cloudy and ruddy in color, some people shy away from using it for pickling. But if you can look past the aesthetics, apple cider vinegars bring great depth to pickled foods. They're also fantastic with pan sauces, game meats, roasted root vegetables, and other autumnal flavors.
Red Wine Vinegar
When searching for red wine vinegar, pretend you're shopping for wine, and look for bottles with the name of the grape on the label; the alternative is a field blend of wines that ferment at different times and temperatures, which can get muddied in flavor. Then look for a vineyard associated with that grape—better wine makes a better vinegar. I'm often drawn to vinegars made from Italian grape varieties, particularly Barbera and Sangiovese, that have enough body and structure to still be expressive as a vinegar.
Red wine vinegar has a bold intensity that makes it a great addition to salad dressings featuring strong flavors, like whole grain mustard and garlic. I also like to use it in marinades and pan sauces for pork chops and other proteins that I plan to pair with red wine, since it bolsters the berry and spice flavors in the glass.
White Wine and Champagne Vinegar
As with red wine vinegars, look for a single-appellation grape variety on the label. I usually lean toward those made in the Orléans style, a feature that should be noted on the label. This method involves a slow fermentation in a barrel, giving the product a bit more character and body, notes of citrus and herbs, and sometimes even the buttery quality of an oaked Chardonnay.
With champagne vinegar, it's important to note that for every excellent product, there are just as many "champenoise"-style shams. Unlike the protected designation of origin (PDO) wines from France's Champagne region, champagne vinegar can be made anywhere in France, and therefore varies drastically in quality. For starters, check to make sure that the main ingredient listed is Champagne grapes. If you have the chance to taste it, the vinegar should have a sharp, tingly, vague effervescence.
Both Champagne and white wine vinegars are wonderful in salad vinaigrettes, Hollandaise sauce, Béarnaise sauce, emulsified dressings and mayonnaise, and beurre blanc for fish.
Given how much rice is produced in Asia, it's unsurprising that a remarkable range of rice vinegars can be found there, too. I'm partial to the premium rice vinegars of Japan, which are exceptionally fresh- and clean-tasting. Of the country's prominent styles, the most commonplace is komezu, a clear rice vinegar. Soft on the palate and far less assertive than white wine vinegar, it's a great background note in marinades and sauces. Make sure to buy an unseasoned variety to avoid any salt, sugar, and spices that might overshadow its natural flavor.
Then there's akazu, a famed red vinegar that dates back to the Edo period (between the 17th and 19th centuries), when it was used to flavor and preserve fish before refrigeration was available. Though once widely seen as a mark of poverty, it's now embraced as a haute ingredient for top sushi chefs. Akazu is made from moromi, or lees—the leftover mash from the sake-brewing process, made up of residual yeast that collects at the bottom of the vessel. The moromi is aged in wooden boxes for at least a decade, during which time it cakes together and matures, before it's finally put through a press to expel the vinegar. While akazu might be too strong for lean fish and vegetables (though it's great for fattier fish and darker meats), komezu's more straightforward flavor is perfect in vinaigrettes and carries more assertive flavors well, even outside of Japanese cuisine.
Black vinegar has a long history in Chinese cuisine, and particularly that of Hunan Province; in the US, you'll often spot it as a condiment in Chinese restaurants, especially those serving xiao long bao (soup dumplings). The best-known version of black vinegar is Chinkiang, named for a city near Shanghai. Japan, however, also has a culture of kurozu, its own style of black vinegar, which is derivative of its Chinese counterpart but not nearly as dark. The Chinese style can be made of grains and rice, while the Japanese one is made of rice only. Both are fermented in closed crocks, left out in the sun for extended periods of time until they turn a dark amber hue. They have a funky depth of flavor, though they're milder than their looks would suggest—slightly tannic, somewhere between a natural wine and an aged whiskey. Use black vinegar in braises and glazes, or doctor it with ingredients like ginger, garlic, or sesame oil to make a quick and punchy dipping sauce.
It's a long story, but balsamic vinegar was never meant to be a commercial product. As far back as the late Renaissance, balsamic was matrilineally passed down from generation to generation in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, with mothers making a batch for their daughters, and the latter for their daughters after them. It was made to be aged for dozens of years, then offered as a dowry. Today, balsamic is made widely throughout Emilia-Romagna by women, men, and corporate producers alike.
Balsamic vinegar is made from the cooked must of Trebbiano grapes, which is then aged in a series of barrels (called a batteria) made of varying woods, from ash to cherry. Tradizionale balsamic is aged from 12 to 25 years or more, and can be made only in the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia. However, the term "balsamic" can be applied to many different types of vinegar, including those made in the traditional manner but outside of the region, and even those that don't follow the strictures for making tradizionale—for example, those made not by cooking down the grape must before fermentation, but by using grape concentrates and artificial colorings to replicate the authentic product.
There are several different tiers of balsamic vinegar. Tradizionale is the highest quality, followed by bottles marked IGP (indicazione geografica protetta), or PGI (protected geographical indication) in English—similar to the designation that identifies Champagne. IGP is regulated more heavily than the lowest tier of basic, "condiment"-quality balsamic, but costs significantly less than tradizionale.
Once you have it at home, use it in crisp salads, on top of cheese-stuffed pastas, and even on desserts (it's quite good on baked apples). But keep in mind that the better the balsamic, the less heat you want to apply to it in cooking. You should avoid heating tradizionale whenever possible, since it'll lose the characteristics and complexity that have taken over a decade to develop. A few drops of it on strawberries, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, or even panna cotta will really show off its flavors. On the other hand, adding some to a butter sauce served over fresh tortelli will highlight its deep and lingering acidity. Less pricey IGP balsamics are ideal for cooked preparations. Try using them to accent barbecue sauces, or brush them onto hearty roasts to bring out their robust meatiness.
Sherry vinegar is another PDO product, meaning that it can be produced only in a particular region of southern Spain, most notably the city of Jerez. It's fermented using a solera system, which is the same method used to produce sherry, the fortified wine it's made from. To make the vinegar, the sherry is further oxidized through blending in graduated stacks of barrels, whereby a certain quantity of vinegar is moved from the young barrels on top and blended with the older ones at the bottom. The resulting product is a mix of many vintages. Through this process, the vinegar becomes oxidized, taking on the flavors of wood and nuttiness, and develops a long finish, qualities that work especially well in starchy bean dishes, spicy stews, and creamy purées. But just because a sherry vinegar hails from Spain doesn't mean it's good—check the label, and avoid those with additives like caramel coloring and flavoring agents that mimic oak and oxidation, which make the vinegar smell and taste like wood cleaner.
A staple of Filipino cuisine, cane vinegar is made from double-fermented sugarcane juice, or a syrup made by cooking down this juice. It's impossible to make an aromatic and savory adobo without cane vinegar to provide its depth. Cane vinegar is also absurdly good in marinades for braised or stewed meats, as its innate sweetness becomes more pronounced when cooked for long periods of time.
Mead, or honey wine, is one fermented step away from honey vinegar. Different honeys yield different flavors in vinegar: A darker chestnut honey will be a bit deeper and funkier than a straight-up citrus flower one, which should still have notes of whatever fruit or tree the bees fed from. Honey vinegars come in a spectrum of colors, from light and translucent to reddish-brown mahogany, and usually taste stronger the darker they get. They're especially expressive in vinaigrettes, take to herb infusions nicely, and can show off their vibrancy in cocktails when used in place of citrus. They even play well in confectionery, like honeycomb candy.
Fruit and Vegetable Vinegars
Any fruit or vegetable with a substantial natural sugar content can be turned into wine, and, in turn, make for a singular vinegar. I've tasted flavors as wild as asparagus vinegar and banana vinegar, as well as more commonplace ones, like berry. It can take a little hunting to find vinegars that are actually made from fresh produce, as opposed to those that are just white distilled vinegar infused with concentrates. There's no steadfast rule for how to use these—each is as distinct as its base ingredient—but you can't go wrong with using a corresponding vinegar to reinforce fruit or vegetable flavors in dishes (e.g., use a little raspberry vinegar to enhance fresh or cooked raspberries).
Beer (Malt) Vinegar
You may know malt vinegar as the condiment paired with fish and chips, but what is it, really? Most "beer" vinegars aren't made of beer; they're made of commodity malts that, while resembling a darker brew, don't have the distinct flavor profile of roastier malts. Look for vinegars that mention "beer" (rather than "malt") on their labels—all the better if you can find the name of a craft brewery on there, too. I've noticed that more and more breweries are working with vinegar-makers to collaborate on complex concoctions, and I hereby challenge all breweries—and home brewers—that don't have a beer-vinegar project in the works to start now. With a wide array of brewing processes and styles available, from wild farmhouse ales to deep, robust porters, beer vinegar could easily become this country's next versatile ingredient for an array of culinary uses, from vinaigrettes to sauces and even cocktails.