What Is Vinegar?

A Guide to Buying, Cooking, and Storing Vinegar

what is vinegar illustrated guide

The Spruce Eats / Brianna Gilmartin

Vinegar is an acidic liquid produced through the fermentation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria. It is used in cooking not only for its flavor qualities but also for its chemical properties. It can be made from a variety of base ingredients that contribute their own unique characteristics to the vinegar and add extra flavor and vibrancy to foods they are used with.

Fast Facts

  • Shelf life: Very long
  • Name: From the Old French words for "sour wine"
  • Primary component: Acetic acid
  • Distinctive flavor: Sour and acidic, with infinite variations

Pasteurized vs. Raw

Pasteurized vinegar has been treated with heat to neutralize the bacterial culture, known as the mother of vinegar (MOV), which can form a slimy glob of sediment in the vinegar. While the sediment is not bad for you—many, in fact, believe that unpasteurized vinegar is healthier—most types of vinegar on the market have been pasteurized to prevent sediment from occurring as it can be unattractive to consumers. Stopping the bacteria through pasteurization also helps maintain product consistency and stability. Vinegars that have not been pasteurized are often labeled as "raw."


Though you can count the main types of vinegar on the one hand—wine (red and white), distilled, malt, rice, and cider—there is an amazing variety of different vinegars out there, and wine-based vinegars make up the majority of them. The name, in fact, comes from the Old French words vyn (wine) and egyre (sour). There are red wine and white wine vinegars, and vinegars made from place-specific types of wine, such as Champagne or Chianti. Others, like sherry and traditional balsamic vinegar, involve complex production methods that result in their unique qualities.

Infusing a basic wine vinegar with other ingredients significantly changes its character, flavor profile, and usage. Malt vinegar has a distinctive malted barley taste, rice vinegar tastes rather sweet and silky, and fruit-flavored vinegars contribute—you guessed it—a distinctive fruit flavor.

Vinegar Uses

Vinegar is an essential component of most pickling brines, where the acetic acid also functions as a natural preservative. Vinegar is also used to stimulate chemical reactions that take place during cooking and baking. For example, when baking soda mixes with an acid, it produces gas trapped within a dough or batter that creates a light, fluffy texture when cooked. Vinegar is also frequently used in marinades because the acid helps tenderize meat by breaking down its fiber. White distilled vinegar has traditionally been used as a disinfectant in the home, especially in the kitchen and bathroom.

How to Cook With Vinegar

Vinegar has been used in cooking for thousands of years, both as an important element in preparation and as a table condiment. The acidic nature of vinegar adds tartness to food, which helps balance and accentuate its flavors. Vinegar is especially important in creamy or fatty foods, such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, and sauces, because acidity helps brighten flavor and prevent dishes from feeling too heavy.

In addition to acidic tartness, vinegar—whether used in a preparation or simply drizzled on top—can also contribute its own particular flavor profile to a dish, especially if it is an infused vinegar, one based on a distinctive type of wine or fruit, or made through a special technique.

What Does It Taste Like?

The primary taste sensation of vinegar is tingling acidity (with the exception, perhaps, of unique versions like traditional balsamic and Banyuls, where acidity remains an important factor but not necessarily the primary one). But, like most other basic taste categories, the world of vinegar consists of infinite subvarieties, each of which offers different expressions of sour. Different types of vinegar and how they are used will also have a different impact on the foods they are paired with.

Vinegar Substitute

If you are looking to dress a salad, add some acidity to mayonnaise, or cut through the fattiness of fried food and don't have any vinegar in the house, the best substitute would be lemon or lime juice (fresh, of course), which is high in citric acid instead of acetic acid. The flavor profile, however, is quite different, and citrus cannot be used much in cooking, baking, or cleaning up.

Vinegar Recipes

Acidity plays a key role in cooking, baking, and finishing dishes, and vinegar is one of its most significant delivery vehicles. It can also be utilized in many different ways.

Where to Buy Vinegar

You will find a variety of vinegars in any grocery or supermarket, usually in the aisle with oils, vinegars, salad dressings, and pickles. Upscale "craft" vinegars can be found on internet websites and specialty gourmet food stores. There are even some retail outlets and online sites that focus almost exclusively on top-quality vinegars and oils.


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 the growth of bacteria from the mother culture and may develop sediment. This sediment is not dangerous in any way, and larger particles may easily be strained out. Refrigerating unpasteurized vinegar will help slow this process.