Bottles of vinegar lined up

Not many foods play the role of both a prized cooking ingredient and household cleaner. The word vinegar derives from the French “vin aigre,” or sour wine. It has been traced back to 5000 B.C.E. in Babylon, not just for cooking but as a medicine, a preservative, and a drink to boost strength and promote wellness. Legend describes vinegar’s discovery when a forgotten wine was left in storage for several months, causing it to ferment and turn sour.

Vinegar is a combination of acetic acid and water made by a two-step fermentation process. First, yeast feed on the sugar or starch of any liquid from a plant food such as fruits, whole grains, potatoes, or rice. This liquid ferments into alcohol. The alcohol is then exposed to oxygen and the acetic acid bacteria Acetobacter to ferment again over weeks or months, forming vinegar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires vinegar to contain at least 4% acetic acid, but may range up to 8% in commonly used vinegars. Although acetic acid is responsible for the tart and pungent flavors and odors we recognize, vinegar also contains trace vitamins, mineral salts, amino acids, and polyphenolic compounds [1]. Flavors range from sour to savory to sweet. Some vinegars, such as balsamic, can be left to ferment up to 25 years.

Vinegars and Health

Early records from China, the Middle East, and Greece describe vinegar for medicinal purposes: as a digestive aid, an antibacterial balm to dress wounds, and treatment for cough. Today, vinegar is often touted as an all-purpose treatment for everything from minor ailments to chronic diseases. To be clear, existing scientific research does not support the use of vinegar as an effective treatment for any of these conditions. However, some animal studies and small human studies have suggested a health benefit from vinegar, which has fueled its popularity in mainstream media.


Vinegar is low in calories and nutrients. Depending on the type, one tablespoon of vinegar contains anywhere from 2 to 15 calories. The lowest calorie versions like distilled vinegar have no nutrient value; others contain trace amounts of nutrients. Because most vinegars are free of sodium and sugar, they are an ideal ingredient to flavor foods on restricted diets. However, not all are calorie-free. Some vinegars are a blend of grape juice and wine vinegar, sometimes with added sugar, so it is important to read the nutrition facts label and ingredients list to know exactly what you are getting.

How To Use

  • The acidity or sourness of vinegar brightens the flavor of food and adds balance to a rich dish. It is found in popular kitchen staples like salad dressings, marinades, sauces, mayonnaise, and ketchup.
  • Vinegar can change the texture of foods. It breaks down the chemical structure of protein, such as when used as a marinade to tenderize meats and fish. Vinegar can also be used to make cottage cheese by adding it to milk. The acid in vinegar separates the milk’s solid curds from the liquid whey.
  • Quick-Pickled Beets and Fennel
    Quick-Pickled Beets and Fennel

    Vinegar may be used to pickle food, a preservation method that extends the shelf life of perishable foods by killing bacteria. Pickling involves soaking a food in a brine solution made from vinegar, water, salt, and sugar, which also changes the food’s flavor.

  • There are several types of vinegars available. Specialty vinegars may have added herbs like basil, clove, or cinnamon, or are sweetened with fruit juices. The following are common types and how they are used:
    • White Distilled: Made by fermentation of a distilled alcohol, which often originates from fermented grains. Note that the role of grains is only indirect in their use to make alcohol, which is then distilled to produce a water solution of nearly pure ethyl alcohol, followed by fermentation into a solution of nearly pure acetic acid (in water). This process accounts for the lack of savory, aromatic flavors found in wine vinegars. The resulting acidity is ideal for pickling because it does not alter the color of fruits and vegetables. It’s also a popular inexpensive choice for cleaning.
    • Balsamic: Made from fermented grape must (whole pressed grapes). This thick dark brown vinegar may taste a little sweeter and mellow in comparison with other vinegars. It can be used in salad dressings and marinades, or simmered into a thick sauce called a “reduction” to be drizzled onto fruit or ice cream.
    • Rice: Made from fermented rice. Not too acidic with a milder, sweeter flavor. Used for dishes with Asian flavors like sushi, pickled vegetables, and stir-frys.
    • Wine: Made from red or white wine. Has an acidic and sharp flavor that varies with the type of wine used. Used in marinades and salad dressings, and for cooking meat and fish.
    • Apple Cider: Made from the liquid of crushed apples. Lower acidity than other types with a faint apple flavor. Used for salads, salad dressings, marinades, and sweeter dishes.
    • Malt: Made from fermented un-hopped beer. Has a strong acidic flavor that is selected for sauces or dips.
    • illustration of a vinegar bottle with a bow for a gift
      With so many varieties, try gifting a new flavor experience to someone on your holiday gift list.

      Flavored: A vinegar base (usually wine vinegar) that is infused with fruit purees or herbs like rosemary or sage to create unique flavors for vinaigrette dressings and marinades.

Recipe ideas and serving suggestions featuring vinegar:

Did You Know?

After cooking, the next most popular use for vinegar—particularly white vinegar—is cleaning. While the 5% acetic acid in vinegar is strong enough to kill some household pathogens, it does not kill them all (e.g., salmonella) and is not recommended as a replacement for commercial disinfectants. [1] However, distilled white vinegar is an inexpensive, nontoxic “green” product that may be useful for certain household chores. It appears to work particularly well on removing mineral deposits and soap scum, such as in sinks, drains, and shower stalls.

Last Reviewed October 2019

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