Cooking Tips

How Many Vinegars Do You Really Need?

We share some guidance on the fewest number of bottles you can stock without compromising your cooking.

Published Feb. 26, 2021.

Vinegars take up a surprising amount of space in my pantry. At last count, I had an impressive 14 bottles—everything from distilled white to nasturtium.

Vinegar is one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen. But how many—and which—vinegars do you really need to keep on hand? Those of us with out-of-control vinegar collections (I repeat: nasturtium vinegar) or limited kitchen storage space needed to know.

To get to the bottom of this, I talked to Samantha Block, a test cook on the ATK books team. Sam worked on our Ultimate Meal-Prep Cookbook, which is all about stocking your kitchen with things you need and nothing you don’t. 

Ultimately, the types of vinegar you should keep in your kitchen depend on what you like to cook. But we wanted to narrow it down to the “desert island” vinegars: the fewest bottles you can stock without compromising your cooking.

We broke it down into three categories: utility players, no-substitute, and nonessential. Read more about each category—and the vinegars we think belong in each one—below.

Group 1: Utility Players

These multipurpose vinegars cover a range of uses and are listed here from most acidic to least. You could get away with stocking two of the three.

  • White wine vinegar or red wine vinegar: These two types are more or less interchangeable (yes, even in vinaigrettes). But white wine vinegar has a small but significant advantage: It doesn’t impart color, which can make it the better choice for seasoning pan sauces and soups or for pickling vegetables.
  • Cider vinegar: Cider vinegar is a little sweeter than white and red wine vinegar and more acidic than rice wine vinegar. We use it for a comparatively mellow, slightly sweet kick of acidity in glazes, slaws, and sauces.
  • Rice wine vinegar: This vinegar has a lower acidity than other vinegars, which makes it key in stir-fries and marinades and a less sharp option for sauces, quick pickles, and dressings. You can buy it seasoned or unseasoned; we prefer unseasoned because it’s more versatile. (Start a free trial and learn how to season your own.)

Group 2: No-Substitute Vinegars

These vinegars aren’t quite as versatile as the ones listed above, but when you need them, there’s really nothing that measures up to the real thing. Stock the ones that match your cooking style.

Group 3: Nonessential Vinegars

This category includes vinegars that can be replaced with another type or have a very specific use. Vinegar lasts indefinitely, so keep that in mind before you buy a big bottle for a recipe that calls for a teaspoon. (In that case, you might be able to find a smaller container of whatever you need.)

  • Distilled white vinegar: Unless you’re into pickling or making your own cleaning solution, you can cut this vinegar from the equation.
  • Champagne vinegar: This vinegar’s flavor is a bit more delicate than that of white wine vinegar—although our tasters had a hard time telling the difference.
  • Malt vinegar: If you’re not making a lot of fried fish and chips at home, you can free up the room for something else.
  • Fruit vinegar: Fruit vinegars are nice in vinaigrettes or drizzled over grilled fruit, but other vinegars—such as white wine vinegar and balsamic, respectively—do those jobs, too.

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