Make a splash! The 8 best vinegars and how to use them

Sometimes, what's missing from a dish is a bright hit of acid. Vinegar can be the perfect antidote

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published April 1, 2023 4:30PM (EDT)

An assortment of vinegars (iStock / Getty Images)
An assortment of vinegars (iStock / Getty Images)

In Season 10 of "Top Chef," the exquisite Anna Faris and the middling Chris Pratt are the guests on an episode. As Gail Simmons reviews a dish, she opines that a certain element of the dish "gave us a well-needed hit of acid." Pratt then deadpans, joking ". . . you guys took a hit of acid, too?" Everyone chortles and then moves on, but it's a silly joke that actually does have a well-intentioned meaning behind it when it comes to the bright condiment and ingredient.

The iconic, incredibly popular Samin Nosrat book "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking" was a classic for many reasons, but one aspect of which I was such a fan was the inclusion of the word "acid" right there in the title.

In the past decade or so, discussing the acidic component of food has become more and more commonplace, which can also be attributed to its mentions on cooking competition shows like the aforementioned "Top Chef" or even on The Food Network at large. At one point, though, the term was rarely applied in the culinary world. Perhaps it was because the word itself didn't inherently connect to food, while "citrus" or "vinegar" is clear-cut and definitive. 

Regardless, I often find acidity to be one of the strongest, most important components of dishes, but mastering the balancing act of acid is tough. 

The epitome of a "pantry staple," vinegar often becomes an unsung hero, which is unfortunate because it's a beacon of versatility. Vinegar can add flavor, heft, punch, levity, brightness — and, of course, a real wallop of acid. You just have to know how to use it. 

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For many, though, figuring out how to use vinegar in the best possible ways is a challenge. Start factoring all the decisions you have to make — which vinegar do you buy? Which becomes your "everyday" vinegar versus your "special occasion" vinegar? Why are there so many varieties out there? — and that challenge slowly morphs into a labyrinthine feat. 

So, to help mitigate that, here's a quick guide to help guide you into enjoying the wide world of vinegars. 

Balsamic (and white balsamic)
I adore balsamic in all of its iterations. I love it for any use, truly. I even wrote a love letter to it once. 
As I said then, balsamic is "syrupy, sweet, and acidic, it provides buoyancy and heft to anything it is added to, sometimes veering into an elixir that straddles the savory/sweet disparity more so than any other condiment."
I will note, though, that actual, real balsamic is a far cry from the saccharine, heavy balsamic reduction that some restaurants hawk or even that acrid, unappealing balsamic vinaigrette that you can pick off of supermarket shelves. 
In addition to being excellent on salad greens, drizzled over crispy chicken cutlets, or used as a perfect bread dipper with olive oil and fresh herbs, I'm a big fan of cooked balsamic. A reduced pan sauce made of nothing but balsamic and butter (with a bit of stock, broth, or water thrown in for good measure) is truly A+. 
Also, don't forget about white balsamic! It has a lighter, slightly sweeter flavor (that almost reminds me of a savory apple or grape juice?), with a subtle salinity and almost champagne-esque fermentation or carbonation. It's a lovely ingredient. 
Wine (red, white, rice, champagne, etc.)
Wine vinegars are terrific and wildly versatile. They're excellent in stir-fries and quick dishes, in pickles, as a backbone note in sauteed vegetables, or drizzled over a grain or macaroni salad. I especially love the sharp coolness of rice vinegar. Champagne vinegar is not multi-purpose, so use it with intention.
Red wine vinegar is my go-to for a really great, classic turkey sandwich (with mayonnaise and LTO, plus banana peppers and provolone), while white wine vinegar is excellent in a beurre blanc or as a strong acid note in a potato salad with grainy mustard and lots of fresh herbs. These vinegars are also great in marinades.
Sherry vinegar
Sherry vinegar is a bit more expensive (and sometimes comes in neat bottles), but it is is unquestionably in my top-three favorite vinegars. It has a lofty, savory note that really elevates anything to which it's added.
I do prefer it "raw," as a dressing on thinly sliced vegetables or greens or drizzled over grains with vegetables and chunks of cheese, but it can also be cooked and used in other applications. A quick splash of it is actually quite good in soups or broths, too. 
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar was once the hero of the vinegar world — supposedly a vinegar rich with health and nutritional benefits — but frankly, it's one of my least favorites. It can border on acrid for me and is sometimes over-used; for example, I think it's not a great salad dressing vinegar because it can be quite overwhelming.
But if you're an ACV adherent, don't mind me and use it with reckless abandon! Just be mindful that its acid content seems high and it's a perfect example of one of those acids that might make you have a coughing fit if you happen to eat a bite of salad that's particularly aggressively dressed.
Distilled white
Distilled white vinegar is strong. I also have a super strong aversion to its aroma, especially when cooked. But it's probably the ideal multi-purpose vinegar (and it has lots of non-cooking uses, too). It's a great go-to for a quick drizzle in the cooking water when you're making boiled eggs. It's also good for glazing vegetables — often with butter — or even added to pie doughs. It can also be used in combination with dairy to make a makeshift "buttermilk" for baking. 
I love black vinegar. It has such a strong flavor and is an excellent dipping sauce. While some vinegars can border on bitter or sour, black vinegar has almost a soy sauce-like flavor profile, but not nearly as sharp or saline. It's often used in braises or noodle dishes, used in chicken dishes, or even used in soups or stews. It also has a subtle sweetness as a background note. It's a winner of a vinegar.
Truthfully, I don't think I've ever used it as anything other than a dipper for French fries, but the flavor of malt vinegar is so immediately identifiable (and I love the aroma). Malt vinegar is not a super common ingredient beyond being a classic side for fish and chips, but it's always been an ingredient that I think I'd like to work with more. 
In recent years, specialty vinegars have become all the rage, ranging from flavors like celery (which I bought and didn't love) all the way to persimmon. There is a host of new companies trafficking in these specialty vinegars, but be warned, they can be outrageously expensive. Some are marvelous, though, while others seem to fall a bit flat for me. I would also use them very judiciously, mainly because of their high price. 
Seperately, I've never used this kind, but (clearly), this particularly type of vinegar comes very highly recommended! 

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By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Acid Food Home Cooking Vinegar