White vinegar, sometimes also called “distilled vinegar,” is a mildly acidic clear liquid used in cooking and cleaning that is usually made through the fermentation of grain alcohol. When grain alcohols are exposed to the air and allowed to oxidize, they produce acetic acid, which manufacturers then down to between a 5 and 8 percent solution with water. White vinegar is one of the simplest vinegars available and, aside from the bitter or sourness usually associated with acetic acid, has no real flavor or taste of its own.
It is commonly used in cooking as a complement to sweet flavors in sauces, salad dressings, and marinades, and its acid content also makes it a good preservative: cooks often use it to pickle vegetables or meat. The vinegar’s mellow, nearly tasteless nature usually works to enhance food’s natural flavors rather than overshadow them. Its acidic nature also makes it invaluable around the house. People use it to clean windows, to remove calcium deposits, or as part of a home remedy for clogged drains, among many other things.
There are a couple of different ways to make white vinegar, but grain alcohol is almost always the starting point. Wheat is a popular choice, as is corn; a lot depends on where manufacturers are, and what sort of grain is readily available at a good price. The key is to find something that is clear and basically flavorless and odorless.
When alcohol is exposed to oxygen, a chemical reaction happens that essentially turns the alcohol molecules into acetic acid. Many people are familiar with this reaction if they’ve ever left a bottle of wine open for too long; after a few days or weeks, it often has a sour or bitter flavor. Without even knowing it, they’ve created a rudimentary wine vinegar.
So-called “white” versions of vinegar are much simpler than those made from wine or other alcohols and are typically much more uniform, as well. They are also more versatile, easier to manufacture in bulk, and usually quite inexpensive. Many companies make white or distilled vinegar from grain that is left over from other food processing tasks, particularly wheat flour manufacturing and animal feed production. In most cases, all that is required in addition to grain is water and some sort of yeast to catalyze the fermentation into alcohol.
Grain alcohol will turn into vinegar simply by being exposed to oxygen, but this can be a time consuming and somewhat unpredictable process. It also runs the risk of introducing contaminants like dust or other air particles that can disrupt the flavor of the final product, and as a result modern manufacturers more often use controlled distillation. Distillation involves heating the liquid, then subjecting it to various pressures and air qualities in order to separate out the water and alcohol, and in order to make the acetic acid conversion more streamlined.
The chemical reaction that happens once the oxygen is introduced typically consumes all of the alcohol that hasn’t evaporated off, so the resulting vinegar is almost always completely alcohol-free. Manufacturers who plan to sell their vinegar commercially usually test the finished products and often run them through additional filtration to ensure that all particulates have been removed.
White vinegar has many uses in food preparation. It is one of the key ingredients in basic pickling, for instance, and many cooks prize its bitter, somewhat sour taste as way to add dimension to salad dressings, sauces, and marinades without being overpowering. Some cooks use a splash of vinegar the way others use salt, basically as a way to add a quick “zip” to dishes and perk up flavor. White vinegar often works well for this purpose since it doesn’t really have a pronounced taste of its own the way many wine and cider vinegars do. People often add small amounts to foods to balance different tastes and accentuate subtle flavors, particularly those of milder fruits, vegetables, and cheeses.
Uses Around the House
Many people also keep a bottle of distilled vinegar with their cleaning supplies, and in some places the product is more popular as a cleanser than as an ingredient. Its acid level will kill germs and disinfect most surfaces, and it will neutralize and eliminate most odors.
People commonly mix it with water and use it to clean glass, tile, and ceramic surfaces, for instance, and it can keep kitchen counters, sinks, and disposals looking and smelling fresh. It can reduce lime and calcium build-up in appliances like coffeemakers and teakettles, and adding a splash to laundry can help brighten fabric colors. Those with pets often use diluted vinegar to remove stains from pet messes, and something about its smell can often actually deter cats from urinating. People looking for an eco-friendly and chemical-free solution to clogged drains often mix a bit of distilled vinegar with baking soda which, together with warm water, can dislodge a number of different drain obstructions (and often leaves pipes cleaner than before, too).
Similar Varieties and Substitutions
White vinegar is one of the simplest and most readily available types of vinegar, but it is rarely the only option. Vinegars made from wine, from different fermented fruits, and other grains like rice are also common, and many of these may look white or clear in color. In most cases distilled vinegar can be swapped or substituted with nearly any other variety, but cooks and cleaners need to be ready for a difference in flavor and smell.
A recipe that calls for distilled vinegar might be enhanced using a cider or wine-based alternative, but depending on the other ingredients, the flavor profile might turn out somewhat oddly. Similarly, cleaning windows or removing stains with rice vinegar will often work in a pinch, but it may leave a pronounced smell behind. Cost is also something many people think about. Plain distilled vinegar is often the least expensive choice, which can make it easier to essentially pour generous splashes down the drain.