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The Best Apple Cider Vinegar
Mellow, punchy, sweet, subtle: Could we find a cider vinegar that has it all?
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What You Need To Know
Just as Italy is known for balsamic vinegar and Spain for sherry vinegar, America has a vinegar to lay claim to: apple cider vinegar. Cider vinegar is a natural byproduct of apple cider—left to sit long enough, the sugar in the apples will convert to alcohol and then to acetic acid. Cider vinegar has been around since at least 2500 BC, and it has been produced in the United States since the colonial days. Before the advent of refrigeration, most American homes kept cider vinegar on hand for preserving, cooking, and cleaning.
These days, we use apple cider vinegar for a comparatively mellow, slightly sweet kick of acidity in glazes, slaws, and sauces. We’re particularly keen on using it in fall dishes, where the apple notes complement other seasonal ingredients. Since we last tasted apple cider vinegar, our former winning product by French manufacturer Maille has become hard to find in the United States. We wanted to see if there was a better, more widely available option.
We rounded up six American-made cider vinegars and asked 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers to sample the products plain, cooked into a pan sauce, stirred into coleslaw, and mixed into a barbecue sauce. Every vinegar we tried worked fine. That said, tasters zeroed in on some characteristics that separate vinegar that’s “fine” from vinegar that’s really good.
Cider will convert naturally to vinegar with time, but manufacturers typically speed up the process by adding a “mother,” which is bacteria from an established vinegar. Once all the alcohol is converted to acid (there’s no measurable alcohol in vinegar), the vinegar is either filtered to remove the cloudy sediment of leftover mother or bottled unfiltered. In the plain tasting, testers could visually identify the unfiltered vinegars by their darker, hazier appearance and small floating particles. While tasters didn’t notice any difference in consistency when tasting filtered and unfiltered products, many thought the unfiltered vinegars were slightly more complex—fruity, floral, and appley—when sampled straight.
These nuances were still prominent when we tasted the vinegars in a subtle pan sauce, where tasters preferred the fruitiness and slightly funky liveliness of unfiltered products. But the lines between filtered and unfiltered started to blur when we tried the vinegars in barbecue sauce and slaw, punchy foods with lots of competing flavors. In these applications, tasters wanted a bright, bold kick of tartness and preferred products they perceived as more acidic—regardless of whether they were filtered or unfiltered.
But more acidity wasn’t always a good thing. One product was slightly too tangy and o...
Everything We Tested
With just the right amount of acidity, this familiar vinegar was “sharp” and “punchy,” with a subtle “floral” fruitiness. It was brightest in barbecue sauce and slaw, where its “refreshing” tanginess countered the intensity of other ingredients. “I’d let this enliven my barbecue any day,” said one taster. (Heinz also sells a gallon-sized product marketed as apple cider vinegar, but it is different from our winner and made by adding apple flavoring to distilled vinegar. If you buy cider vinegar in bulk containers, we recommend checking the label and avoid purchasing products that say "flavored distilled.")
With a “bright” punch of acidity and just a hint of sugar, this filtered vinegar had a “juicy,” “almost drinkable” sweetness and “vibrant” notes of “green apple.” Tasters thought this vinegar added a “lively” zippiness and “subtle sweetness” that “balanced” other flavors in pan sauce and barbecue sauce. It was also the cheapest vinegar in the bunch.
This unfiltered vinegar emerged at the top of the pack in pan sauce, where its “boozy,” “zesty” apple flavor lent a complex “zing.” While these “slightly funky” notes were lost in slaw and barbecue sauce, most tasters appreciated this product’s “lively” acidity and “sweet apple finish.”
This “very pale” vinegar was “almost white in color” and had a “mellow” flavor to match. Though tasters thought this product was “clean,” “bright,” and “pleasantly crisp,” some lamented that it “lacked complexity.” Still, this “middle of the road” vinegar worked decently in every recipe we tried.
When sampled plain and in pan sauce, this unfiltered vinegar was “mellow” and “fruity,” with delicate hints of “melon,” “cantaloupe,” and “sweet apple.” These nuances were much subtler, however, when we tasted the vinegar in punchy recipes like slaw and barbecue sauce, where this product was still “bright” and “balanced” but also a tad “dull.” This vinegar won’t ruin your recipes, but there are better choices.
This unfiltered vinegar had plenty of acidity but no sweetness to balance it out. While its “bold” tartness was deemed “bright” in barbecue sauce, tasters found it a tiny bit “harsh” in pan sauce. Tasters were also mixed about its “boozy,” “fermented” notes, which added a polarizing “effervescence” to pan sauce that some tasters liked and others didn’t.
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