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October 2010



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When most people think of vinegar they immediately associate it with salad dressings or, in Britain, with fish and chips. However the various types have their own unique qualities and, depending on the variety, many culinary uses from pickling to cake mixtures.

History of Vinegar

The word vinegar derives from the Old French vin aigre, which means ‘sour wine’ and it has been made and used for thousands of years both for medicinal and culinary purposes. It is mentioned in the bible for it’s soothing and healing properties, traces of it have been found in Egyptian urns dating from around 3000 BC, there is evidence that it was used in China around 2000 BC and that the Babylonians and ancient Greeks used it to preserve foods.

In more recent times, Louis Pasteur showed that vinegar results from a natural fermentation process in 1864 and in World War I, it was used for the treatment of wounds on the battlefield.

What is Vinegar?  How is Vinegar Made?

The basic principles of making vinegar hasn’t really changed through the ages and at its most basic, involves the fermentation of sugar to alcohol and then a secondary fermentation to form vinegar. The first process is a natural chemical reaction of certain yeasts with naturally occurring sugars which produces alcohol. The alcohol is further fermented although this secondary fermentation involves a reaction with certain naturally occurring bacteria. It is this acid fermentation which results in weak acetic acid which retains flavour characteristics of the original fermented food e.g. grapes or apples. Acetic acid is what gives vinegar its distinct tart taste. Natural vinegars also contain small amounts of tartaric acid, citric acid, and other acids. The whole process can take several months depending on the ingredients used.

Culinary Uses of Vinegar

Although vinegar is can be as a flavouring, it is more often used for its other properties in many cuisines worldwide and in a variety of recipes, some of which may initially seem a little strange such as cakes, until one understands the science behind it.

The Science of Vinegar

Vinegar as a tenderizer

Vinegar's acid helps break down protein. It therefore makes a good addition to marinades which are being used for meats. Its tenderizing properties are so good that caution should be taken when using in marinades for fish in a marinade that contains vinegar for longer than 20 minutes; otherwise the fish might get mushy.)


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Vinegar as a coagulator

Vinegar helps protein in certain cooked ingredients hold together or coagulate. Items such as poached eggs and fish benefit by the addition of a small amount of vinegar to the water. Placing a tablespoon of vinegar in the water when boiling eggs will make any of the whites escaping through small cracks coagulate thereby acting as a seal in the crack. sealing the crack.

Vinegar as a stabilizer

A little vinegar in whisked egg whites and mayonnaise helps stabalise the proteins and enables them to be whisked to a fuller consistency without breaking down. Also, when making homemade sweets and icing, a few drops of vinegar prevents the texture from getting grainy.

Vinegar as a Preserver

The acidity in vinegar retards the growth of bacteria making it perfect for preserving many types of food particularly by pickling – completely immersing food in a vinegar solution – and as a major ingredients such as chutneys.

Vinegar as a catalyst

Vinegar is often included in cake and biscuit mixtures where it reacts with baking soda to start the chemical reaction needed to produce carbon dioxide which gives a rise as they bake.

Vinegar as a colour protector

The acid in vinegar helps red vegetables such as beetroot and red cabbage to keep their colour during cooking. It should be noted that this colour “fixing” does not apply to green vegetables as these need completely the opposite i.e. alkalinity to keep the chlorophyll colour bright.

Vinegar as a seasoning

Many Asian cuisines use vinegar as an intrinsic part of a recipe’s flavour. In the west, we tend to use it more in dressings although Balsamic and herb flavoured vinegars are being used more and more for their unique flavours in recipes.



Types of Vinegar

There are many different types of vinegars. Below is an alphabetical list and brief explanation of the most common varieties available and popular uses.




Common Uses





This type of vinegar is made from cooked sweet grapes and is aged for between 3 and 12 or more years in wooden casks. It is a very dark purple brown and full of subtle sweet/sour and complex flavours.  More about Balsamic vinegar.

Used as an ingredient in salad dressings, sauces and marinades and as a "drizzle" dressing on its own.





This is made from apples and is a popular for both medicinal and culinary purposes. It has a yellowish colour. Due to its acidity, cider vinegar can be very harsh.

Used as an ingredient in salad dressings, with seafood and poultry and is  excellent  for making infused vinegars.





Malt vinegar is made from grain, particularly barley. The starch is converted by malt to an alcoholic liquid which is subsequently fermented to a 5% malt vinegar. It has a brown colour and a strong taste.

Popular sprinkled on chips and used in pickling.


Red Wine

These vinegars vary in colour from light rose to deep red and have an acid content between 5 and 7%.

Used in many cuisines  in sauces, salad dressings, marinades and for pickling fruit and vegetables.

Rice Wine

These vinegars are made from rice wine or sake and come in three varieties - white, red and black. They often have a sweetish mild flavour and an acid content of 4 to 5%.

Traditionally used in Asian cuisine for salad dressings, and as a condiment for soups and stews  Also added to sushi rice for flavour.





These vinegars are made from sherry and aged in oak casks over a lengthy period. They have a brown colour and a smooth, mellow sweet/sour taste  with an acid content of  7 to 8%. 

Widely used in Spanish cooking, especially with sweet poultry dishes, salads and sauces. Also good for using in dressings.

White Wine

White wine vinegars vary in colour from white to pale gold and have an acid content of between 5 to 7%. They have a light flavour.

Used in many cuisines  in sauces, salad dressings, with seafood and poultry and they are a good for making infused vinegars.

White (Distilled)

Also referred to as variously known as distilled spirit,  "virgin vinegar or white vinegar, these vinegars have quite a harsh, coarse flavour and an acid content between  5% and 8%. They are completely colourless.

Culinary wise, it is widely used in the food industry for pickling and in condiments such as ketchup and mayonnaise.




As well as the above, there are many flavoured vinegars available to buy or which can be made at home. Flavouring ingredients include herbs, fruit and chillies.


Click here for lots of Vinegar Recipes



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