I like an acid pop in my sauces, I’m addicted to pickles, I love a sipping vinegar or shrub if it’s being offered. My vinaigrettes go lighter on the oil than is traditional and vinegar is the last thing I will add to gravy or stew to brighten it up. I prefer a vinegary cole slaw to creamy, and a potato salad dressed with oil and vinegar and herbs rather than mayo.  

When I was growing up, the vinegar aisle was essentially three bottles. Red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, and distilled white vinegar. In my house, we had all three. The red wine vinegar was in the cruet set next to the oil for salads. I'm not really sure why, since no one really ever used the cruet set for salads, choosing instead between gloopier bottled dressings from the fridge like western or creamy Italian, or dad’s famous homemade Thousand Island.  But the cruets sat on the counter, filled with their greenish gold and pinkish red elixirs, next to the salt and pepper.  

The white wine vinegar was in the cupboard. I’m sure it was used for cooking, although I don’t know that I ever saw it employed. The white vinegar was under the sink with the cleaning supplies.  

Then the '80s hit, and the red wine vinegar in the cruet set was replaced with balsamic, which became, for a time, essentially the only vinegar it seemed anyone had ever heard of. All other vinegars went by the wayside in homes and restaurants alike. You couldn’t order a salad without balsamic vinaigrette being the baseline offering. It thankfully bounced raspberry vinegar—which had a serious moment in the early eighties—right out of the running.

Eventually everyone’s palate finally began to tire of the ubiquitousness of the sludgy-sweet brown stuff, and the grocery store aisle expanded again in the early '00s. Suddenly options abounded. Asian vinegars from plum to rice, every varietal of wine, fruit and flavored vinegars galore. There are whole stores devoted to oils and vinegars and you can find them infused with herbs and anointed with honey and spiced with chiles. For those of us with that hankering for flavors that set the tongue tingling, it is a great and glorious time for vinegars.

But with this abundance of riches also comes confusion. When do you use which vinegar and why?

This is both very simple and very complicated a question. But I’m going to try and give you a basic guideline to at least start from. Obviously, there are recipes that specify particular vinegars, and when a recipe does, if you have that type, or want to source it, terrific. But many vinegars can be used nearly interchangeably with little negative effect, so unless you are a superfan like me, don’t feel you have to stock the full battery of what is available.

Wine Vinegars

This includes everything from your basic red and white, to sherry and champagne. These are your go to vinegars, great for simple salad dressings, for punching up sauces. If you have a couple of these in your arsenal, you can turn to them again and again.  Red wine vinegar tends to be a little sharper than white wine, so if you only want to have one on hand, I find white wine vinegar to be the O-positive of vinegars.

White Vinegar

This distilled product is a wonderful addition to both your cooking pantry and your cleaning cabinet. Distilled vinegar in water, about 1/4 cup to a gallon, is a great thing to use to clean your hardwood floors or countertops, it is naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial, and all natural if you are worried about chemicals. A glug down your pipes will help eliminate unpleasant odors, and it will degunk your coffee pot like a dream. But it is also useful in cooking. I use it for simple quick pickles, when you want the vegetable or fruit flavor to shine, and as a leavener in egg-free baked goods, where it interacts with baking soda to give lift and moistness to cakes and muffins without adding any flavoring.

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Fruit Vinegars

Apple cider vinegar is the most common and popular of these, and is a mild flavored and healthful addition to your stash. You can use it pretty much anywhere you would use wine vinegar, as long as you are okay with a bit of extra sweetness along with the sharpness. Raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar is, I think, a bit better than the filtered stuff. It is also key to eliminating fruit flies, just pour an inch of apple cider vinegar in a small bowl and add a drop or two of dishwashing liquid and you will have the most effective fruit fly trap imaginable. Other fruit vinegars are great for salads, and I love a fig or black cherry vinegar drizzled over fruit or cheeses.

Specialty Vinegars

This includes that famous balsamic, as well as Asian vinegars and vinegars with added infusions or flavorings. These are all fun to experiment with, and while I usually acquire one for a specific recipe, it is then super exciting to see what else can be done with it. One of my favorites is a white balsamic infused with oregano, which I pair with an olive oil that has Sicilian green lemon oil added for a two-ingredient vinaigrette that will knock your socks off. Honey vinegar can be beautiful dressing a salad garnished with fresh pomegranate and crumbled goat cheese, and I’ve found that mild rice wine vinegar works better than any other for potato salads or rice salads.

And if your kitchen is old school, there is no shame in red wine, white wine and white vinegar being the only things in the house. Just keep the cruet full.