What is White Vinegar?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

A bottle of white vinegar beside a bottle of red vinegar.
A bottle of white vinegar beside a bottle of red vinegar.

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.

White vinegar can be used to pickle cucumbers.
White vinegar can be used to pickle cucumbers.

Core Ingredients

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.

White rice vinegars are generally the sweetest and mildest.
White rice vinegars are generally the sweetest and mildest.

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.

White wine vinegar can be used to create salad dressings.
White wine vinegar can be used to create salad dressings.

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.

Distillation Process

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.

Culinary Uses

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.

White vinegar can be used as an all-natural household cleaning product.
White vinegar can be used as an all-natural household cleaning product.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


It is made from sun ripened grain and distilled water.


Why is white vinegar used in tomato ketchup?


I have been using distilled white vinegar 5 percent made from grains (check the ingredients on the label) for over almost year now. It can be purchased at your local Walmart for about $3.00 a gallon. It is not petroleum based and is not the same as white wine vinegar. Please do not drink this straight as it is very acidic and will burn your throat.

It can be used for cooking, cleaning, laundry, once a week hair conditioner, and it has cured two eye infections, one sinus infection, and a sore throat from December 2010 to February 2011. (Honest!) It can also be used for pickling, but the taste will be different.

Cleaning with it, using it as a meat tenderizer, and using it as a fabric softener should all be full strength. For all other uses please make sure you dilute.

There are some great websites out there for specifics recipes and uses of distilled white vinegar. You just need to search a little.

I have saved a lot of money using this product and for those who are eco friendly, this product is one of the best out there.

P.S. The smell takes getting used to, but when it dries, the smell disappears. Missa from Worcester, MA


why and how does vinegar help in cleaning dishes?


Why and how does acid help clean not only the house, but stains off of your containers as well?


Is there a difference between cleaning vinegar and white cooking vinegar? While I assume I can use white cooking vinegar for cleaning, am I able to using cleaning vinegar for cooking?


in our country, vinegar is made from either sugar cane or coconut. is this white vinegar?


does the white vinegar help reduce cholesterol?


Can I substitute white vinegar with wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar??


Can white vinegar be used in place of cider vinegar for pickling beets?


Is white vinegar the same as white wine vinegar?

Is white vinegar or white wine vinegar made from alcohol? Or what are they made from?


Can white vinegar be used to "melt away" (exaggeration) body fat? Basically, could someone drink straight white vinegar on top of exercise, healthy metabolism and good eating habits to help shave off desired body fat?


do you know any names that i should look for that are not petroleum made.....


I read that white vinegar may be made from petroleum-derived alcohols (though I am not sure what this means). What I understand, though, is that it is best to purchase white distilled vinegar with a label that says, "Made from Grains". That way, you aren't eating petroleum-product in your salad dressings and marinades!

RR, Tallahassee, FL


Why is White Vinegar stronger than other vinegars?

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