When I started cooking, my pantry slowly filled up with different vinegars. I would need one for a recipe, buy it, use a few tablespoons—and that concluded our relationship. We were strangers, and the shelf space I was losing made for an awkward commitment. Until I decided to dive in, taste them, swap them into my dishes, experiment. Getting friendly with the bottles you have will inspire you to use them in dishes you might not have thought to before. If you can’t bear even a drop of acidity on its own (my husband would recoil), start by making a basic vinaigrette with a new vinegar each night. You’ll discover that just like having different oils on hand (grassy olive oil, neutral grapeseed or nutty sesame), a variety of vinegars is essential for your kitchen toolkit.
To help you figure out what you already have and how to use it—or to just inspire you to stray from your fave balsamic—here’s a round-up of the most common vinegars worth exploring.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a pantry essential. It works particularly well in pork dishes (for marinades or added to a chutney), with recipes that include apples or cabbage or in smokey, sweet bbq sauce. It’s great in vinaigrettes and can be substituted for red wine vinegar in a pinch. A few quick squirts will also add balance to your soup or stew.
Made from fermented apple cider, this vinegar will bring a fruitier, slightly sweet flavour to whatever it is added to. It’s light brown in colour and can be found as a clear liquid or in cloudy unfiltered versions. They are interchangeable in cooking; the unfiltered is more likely to be unpasteurized or organic, and some people prefer to use unfiltered simply because it is less refined.
Apple cider vinegar recipes
One of the most complex and flavourful vinegars, balsamic is also versatile—it can be used as an ingredient within a recipe (marinades, soups and braised dishes, full-flavoured vinaigrettes) or reduced to a sauce. More refined, aged versions can be drizzled on fruit or cheese.
Balsamic’s sweet, complex flavours develop as this dark, reddish vinegar is fermented from grape musts (freshly crushed grapes, unlike wine vinegar, which is made from fermented red wine) and barrel-aged for a minimum of 12 years and up to 25. Older vinegars will be more flavourful and thicker as they become further concentrated while ageing (they will also be pricier).
It’s easy to feel stumped staring at a grocery store shelf full of variety and prices. “You get what you pay for” wisdom should be applied here. This doesn’t mean you have to break the budget: a younger bottle (around $15) is perfect for day-to-day use in your cooking. For the real deal, look for bottles labelled aceto balsamico tradizionale, as there is no regulation around using the word “balsamic” alone as a vinegar style. (True balsamic is certified by the Italian government and hails from the Modena or Reggio Emilia regions of Italy.) Also, check the label to ensure you see grape musts as an ingredient. Some cheaper balsamics will add caramel colour and regular wine vinegar as ingredients.
A milder version of red balsamic, white balsamic is created by pressure cooking the wine musts versus simmering to prevent them from caramelizing or attaining any colour. White balsamic is useful if you don’t want to add colour to a dish, or prefer a slightly cleaner, less-sweet flavour.
White balsamic recipe
White distilled vinegar
White vinegar is a kitchen workhorse. Aside from cooking with it, it’s commonly used as a cleaning product. But I also use it a lot for cooking. It’s not fancy and it’s harsher on the palate than other vinegars, but its clean, neutral sharpness also makes it a perfect base for adding your own accents (honey, herbs, spices, mustards) to create vinaigrettes, marinades or pickling liquid. You’ll taste white vinegar in ketchup, where it perfectly balances the overall sweet, savoury flavour of the tomato, and it’s summer perfection when zinging up a creamy potato salad.
White distilled vinegar recipe
Both red and white wine vinegar is made from fermented wine. Their flavours are less complex than a balsamic or a sherry vinegar, but more flavourful and less sharp than white vinegar (without the fruity notes of apple cider vinegar). Both are great kitchen staples.
Red wine vinegar
Red wine vinegar will be stronger, with brighter notes, and bolder than white wine vinegar. You’ll want to use the red in dishes that require added zip and you need something to stand up to robust flavours: think salads where you’re adding cheese or creamy elements, marinades for red meat and bean or lentil dishes.
Red wine vinegar recipes
White wine vinegar
Pull out your white wine vinegar for a delicate spring salad dressing or use it for deglazing a pan (white wine vinegar can substitute for white wine). It’ll be a little less robust in flavour and unlike red wine vinegar won’t impart any colour to your dish—particularly handy when pickling.
White wine vinegar recipe
Created in a similar manner to wine vinegar, champagne vinegar is the fermented product of the two grape varietals used in making champagne—chardonnay and pinot noir. It’s mild and less acidic than apple cider or white wine vinegar and is perfect when looking for a mellow, delicate flavour for a lighter dish.
Champagne vinegar recipe
This vinegar, created from fermented rice, has a mild acidity and slightly sweet flavour. This is the mellowest on the list and is great for seasoning any dish where you need some tang but don’t want your vinegar to overpower.
Seasoned vs. unseasoned rice vinegar
When purchasing rice vinegar you’ll see regular and seasoned options. The seasoned is sweeter (due to added sugar and salt) and can even be used as a dip.
If you have room for only one, go for the unseasoned; you can adjust flavours as needed per use. Once you bring this guy into rotation, you’ll be reaching for it all the time.
Rice vinegar recipes
Black vinegar follows a two-step fermentation process like most fruit-based vinegars, but is produced from a combination of grains, such as glutinous or black sticky rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, and barley. It’s aged a minimum of six months and gets its signature colour and umami flavours from the Maillard reaction, a chemical process where carbohydrates react with amino acids.
Many compare black vinegar to balsamic, since both are dark in appearance, and have complex profiles. Both are syrupy but pourable, however black vinegar is less sweet than balsamic and exhibits distinct variations in taste depending on the country or region it’s produced in. Like balsamic, black vinegar is aged, but instead of barrels, most black vinegars are aged in clay pots.
As an all-purpose pantry staple, black vinegar has wide applications in Asian cuisines, adding umami, sweetness, and a little acidity to the dishes it’s used in. It can be added to marinades and bastes for fatty meats and fish, used in dressings and sauces, and works in cold appetizers like a smashed cucumber salad and dressing noodles. Its flavour profile can complement any soy sauce-based dish and can replace lemon juice to punch up the flavour of scallops in brown butter.
This is the tangy brown vinegar you associate with pub fare like fish and chips. Created from barley that’s been malted into ale, those same malty, mellow, sweet notes carry into the vinegar. Aside from being the perfect pairing for your favourite fried food, malt vinegar can be used in marinades, bbq sauces and in pickling—in a vinaigrette
try blending it with lemon juice or adding some mayo.
(Note that malt vinegar, unlike other vinegars, is not gluten-free.)
Malt vinegar recipe
Sherry vinegar, typically associated with Spanish cuisine (gazpacho!) may just become your forever friend in the kitchen. Less acidic than red and white wine vinegars, it’s flavourful and slightly nutty, and complex but it doesn’t steal the show like balsamic.
Made from sherry wine, different sherry vinegars use different grapes—palomino, Pedro Ximénez or moscatel. Each expresses themselves differently, with palomino being the most common and a good all-purpose choice (it’s also the least sweet). All sherry vinegar is fermented in oak barrels for at least 6 months, Reserva is aged for 2 years and Gran Reserva for a minimum of 10. Like balsamic, the longer it ages, the longer it absorbs the flavours of the wood and becomes more concentrated (and the more expensive—but even a young sherry vinegar carries a lot of flavour).
For day-to-day use, try it anywhere you might add a few drops of citrus (a tomato salad, drizzle it over fish or soup before serving). It’s also perfect for bright, fresh sauces like chimichurri or salsa verde.
Sherry vinegar recipes
With files from Renée S. Suen