Here’s When Each Type of Vinegar Works Best

You might be bombarded with vinegar choices at the grocery store, and every single one has a purpose. Here's how to decide which vinegar to use for which dishes.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 4, 2017: Variety of Apple Cider Vinegar at Cold Storage Bangsar Shopping Centre, Kuala LumpurFaiz Zaki/Shutterstock

While you might turn up your nose at a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, you can’t deny how ubiquitous vinegar is. It’s hidden in all kinds of food, from the predictable ones like salad dressings and pickles to the less-obvious condiments like ketchup and mustard. It brings your favorite hot sauce to life and adds acidity to marinades.

But, here’s the thing: Not all vinegar is made equally, and you can’t use one for everything. So, we took a deep dive into the world of vinegar to help you know which vinegars are best for which dishes.

Distilled white vinegar

This sharp, strong vinegar is made by fermenting distilled alcohol. It’s very inexpensive to make, which makes it popular for use in commercial production of salad dressings and condiments. It can be used in any type of cuisine, but I’d skip cooking with it and just use it for household cleaning projects.

Balsamic vinegar

This dark, sometimes syrupy vinegar is an Italian classic. Unlike the other vinegars, it’s not made from fermented alcohol. Pressed grape juice is aged in oak barrels, which (over time) thickens the vinegar, concentrates its flavor, and drives up the price! There are inexpensive versions on the market, but be careful—the cheaper versions are just white vinegar with added food coloring. This vinegar is perfect for glazing meats, drizzling onto fresh fruits, or making a simple salad dressing when combined with high-quality olive oil. Check out these household vinegar uses you never knew about.

Apple cider vinegar

This particular type of vinegar has gotten a lot of press recently for its alleged medicinal properties. People tout apple cider vinegar as the cure-all for stomach distress, the common cold, and even as a weight-loss supplement. It’s made from pressed apples that are fermented into alcohol before turning into vinegar. This gives it a mildly sweet flavor with a lightly tart aftertaste. It’s my go-to vinegar for making homemade sodas, as well as pickles, salad dressings, and marinades. Make sure you don’t believe these myths about apple cider vinegar.

Red wine vinegar

This fermented red wine byproduct is one of the most popular vinegars in the United States. It can be made with any type of red wine, with variety giving its vinegar a unique spin. Overall, you’ll find it has a sharp flavor and a ton of tang, making it perfect for vinaigrettes and marinades. Since it infuses vegetables with a pinkish hue, it’s also a great choice for pickled onions.

White wine vinegar

Like red wine vinegar, this type is made by fermenting wine (white wine, of course). It lacks the sharp bite of its red counterpart, giving it a mellower flavor and a softer edge. It can be used for making everything from pickles to salad dressings, but I like its mild flavor best for coleslaw.

Champagne vinegar

This super-bright vinegar has a sharp tang but a light flavor. As you might have guessed, it’s made by fermenting champagne. Since its flavor is so delightful, it’s best for use in unheated applications, like finishing hot sauces or making vinaigrettes.

Sherry vinegar

This Spanish vinegar is made by fermenting a fortified wine. After fermenting the sherry, the byproduct is aged in oak barrels for at least six months. That gives it a deeply savory flavor, making it one of the more complex flavored vinegars. It’s perfect for deglazing and making pan sauces, but you can also use it to add depth to soups or sauces.

Rice vinegar

This vinegar is made by fermenting rice wine, usually from China or Japan. It’s less acidic than the other types of vinegar so it’s less harsh and has a sweeter taste. This vinegar makes excellent quick pickles and is delightful when added to Asian-style stir-fries and sauces.

Black vinegar

This Chinese vinegar (also called Chinkiang vinegar) is made from glutinous rice. It has a deep, smoky flavor that’s almost woody-tasting. Because it’s intensely sour, it’s used as the counterpart to sweet ingredients in Chinese cooking. It makes a great dipping sauce for dim sum dumplings.

Malt vinegar

This popular fish-and-chips vinegar is made from barley, which is brewed into beer before being fermented into vinegar. It’s aged briefly, giving it a mellow flavor and a savory mouthfeel. It’s the signature vinegar of the United Kingdom.

Truly, life isn’t worth living without a little bit of tang! And now you know how to make life even more delicious. Just be aware of the three things you should never, ever mix with vinegar.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and a food writer. After graduating from Cascade Culinary school, Lindsay became the Executive Chef at Jackson's Corner in Bend, OR, from 2013 to 2016. Her genuine passion for food and sustainable food practices led her to find the farmer in herself. She lives in Durango, CO, where she enjoys the trials and errors of small plot farming. Lindsay is currently working on a cookbook that teaches home cooks how to craft beautiful meals without a recipe, tentatively titled "The Art of Bricolage: Cultivating Confidence and Creativity in the Kitchen."