What Is Vinegar?

Bottle of vinegar, radishes, mason jar and other ingredients
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Vinegar is an acidic liquid produced through fermentation. Vinegar is used in cooking not only for its flavor qualities but also for its chemical properties. Vinegar can be made from a variety of base ingredients, each of which contributes its own unique flavors and characteristics.

How Is Vinegar Made?

Vinegar is made through the fermentation of ethanol alcohol. Any ingredient containing ethanol may be used to make it, including distilled grain alcohol, wine, champagne, beer, berries, and apple cider.

Bacteria are used to ferment (or break down) the ethanol into byproducts, including acetic acid. Acetic acid is the main component after water. Vinegar also contains other important substances such as vitamins, minerals, and flavor compounds. The bacterial culture used to ferment the ethanol is referred to as mother (mov) or vinegar mother.

Pasteurized vinegar has been heat treated to neutralize the mother culture, which can form a slimy glob of sediment in the vinegar. Most types of vinegar made for consumption have been pasteurized to prevent sediment from occurring since it can be unattractive to consumers. Stopping the bacteria via pasteurization also helps maintain product consistency and stability. Vinegars that have not been pasteurized are often labeled as "raw."

Culinary Uses for Vinegar

Vinegar has been used in cooking for thousands of years. The acidic nature of vinegar lends a sour or tart flavor to foods, which is desirable when balancing flavors. Vinegar is often used to balance creamy or fatty foods such as mayonnaise and other salad dressings or sauces. The tartness helps brighten the flavor and prevents dishes from feeling too heavy.

Besides acidic tartness, vinegar can contribute its own unique flavor profile. Balsamic vinegar is known for its pronounced sweetness and almost syrupy consistency, and malt vinegar has a distinctive malted barley taste. Fruit vinegars, like those made from berries or apples, for example, are also very popular and have a notably fruity character. Vinegars can also be infused with other ingredients such as garlic, herbs, or chile peppers.

In addition to its flavor qualities, vinegar is used to initiate a number of desirable chemical reactions that take place during cooking and baking. Because of its low pH, vinegar is often used to activate the leavening power of baking soda. When baking soda is combined with an acid, it produces gas trapped within dough or batter that when cooked creates a light, fluffy texture. Vinegar is often added to marinades not only for its flavor qualities but because the acid helps tenderize the meat by breaking down its fibers.

Other Uses for Vinegar

Besides its many uses as an ingredient in cooking and baking, vinegar is also considered to have positive benefits for good health. Practitioners of natural medicine, for example, often suggest apple cider vinegar (typically mixed with honey and water) to help lose weight, reduce cholesterol, and lower blood sugar levels. Vinegar is an important component of many pickling brines, where the acetic acid functions as a natural preservative. And vinegar has also been traditionally used as a disinfectant for the home as well as for the body.

Storing Vinegar

Vinegar can be kept indefinitely in a closed container at room temperature. Because it is highly acidic, it is naturally resistant to bacterial growth and spoilage. Unpasteurized vinegar will continue to experience growth of bacteria from the mother culture and may develop bacterial sediment. Refrigerating unpasteurized vinegar will help slow this process.

Is Vinegar Gluten Free?

Malt vinegar contains gluten from barley. While distilled white vinegar made from alcohol distilled from grain has less than the gluten threshold amount of 20 parts per million, it is a concern for some people with celiac disease who are extremely sensitive. Other types of vinegar, such as wine vinegar and rice vinegar are gluten free.