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what is in vinegar
Posted by: Ayla Marika Category: Condiments

What is in Vinegar?

Vinegar is a versatile condiment with many uses, whether for preserving a jar of pickles, dressing a salad or seasoning potato chips. You could go down a rabbit hole trying to identify all the different types of vinegars out there. Let’s see… white vinegar, white and red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar and my current fave black cherry vinegar are just a few sitting in my kitchen right now.

Vinegar is everywhere, but how much do we really know about what is in vinegar and how it is made?

In this article I’ll share with you:

  • What is Vinegar?
  • What is in Vinegar? (ingredients, processing aids)
  • How to make Vinegar (infographic)
  • Vinegar history

What is Vinegar?

Vinegar is a sharp-tasting liquid consisting mainly of acetic acid and water, made from alcohol (eg wine, beer). Vinegar is also known as Acetic Acid, Ethanoic Acid and E260. Vinegar has a pH of 2-3.

Vinegar is a key ingredient in many condiments including mustard and ketchup, salad dressing, and as a seasoning in processed snacks and cooking. Vinegar may also be flavoured with herbs and spices such as chilli and garlic.

The most common variety is white vinegar, which is made from distilled spirits. Other styles include apple cider vinegar, malt vinegar from ale or beer, and white and red wine vinegars. The quality of red wine and white wine vinegar is directly related to the wine—the better the wine, the better the vinegar. Rice vinegar is vital to Asian-style cooking and coconut vinegar is widely used in India and South-East Asia. Balsamic vinegar has its own rich history and is highly prized by connoisseurs.

In the UK and Ireland, a synthetic malt vinegar substitute called ‘non-brewed condiment’ is very common. Although it cannot technically be called ‘vinegar’, it has the same chemical composition as vinegar (acetic acid and water) and tastes similar.


What is in Vinegar?

Even though we use vinegar all the time, few of us understand how vinegar is made, and even fewer have any clue what is vinegar mother. While writing my non-fiction food comic book How Food is Made: An illustrated guide to how everyday food is produced (more about the book here) I researched a ton of food science and food industry books, magazines and journals to get the real answer to this question ‘What is in Vinegar?’, which I give to you now.

The following is an extract from my book How Food is Made

What is vinegar mother?

The mother of vinegar is a living organism, made up of acetic acid bacteria and cellulose. It is used to convert alcohol into vinegar.

From what is vinegar made?

Vinegar is made from alcohol. Any alcohol can be used to start the vinegar making process—including spirits, beer, wine or cider. The flavour of vinegar comes mostly from the alcohol used to make the vinegar. Vinegar is created by airborne acetic acid bacteria, which, with the aid of oxygen, consume ethanol alcohol and release acetic acid (vinegar). Although vinegaring occurs naturally over time, most vinegar makers add acetic acid bacteria to the starting alcohol using a ‘mother of vinegar’ instead.

What is vinegar mother?

Most vinegar makers add acetic acid bacteria to starter alcohol in the form of a culture called a ‘mother of vinegar’ (Acetobacter aceti) to better control the vinegaring process. The mother of vinegar is a living organism, made up of acetic acid bacteria and cellulose. It is difficult to describe a mother of vinegar if you have never seen one – it is round, rubbery, and kind of resembles a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish.

Vinegar ingredients

The main three ingredients in vinegar are:

  • Acetic Acid (ethanoic acid)
  • Water
  • Natural Flavours from alcohol (eg fruit, grain)

Specialty vinegars may also contain herbs, spices and other additional flavourings.

Vinegar processing aids

Processing aids are additives that are used in the processing of a food, but are not present in the final food product. They may be present in the food in trace amounts.

  • Acetic Acid Bacterial Culture (mother of vinegar)             
  • Alcohol eg wine, beer (starting liquid)    

Some vinegar-makers leave the mother of vinegar in the bottle, but it is not normally consumed.


How make Vinegar

Vinegar infographic

The following infographic shows the basic principles for how to make vinegar. It is not a recipe, but rather a step-by-step diagram showing the vinegar-making process. You could apply the same process in making vinegar at home, if you wanted.

how vinegar is made infographic

Vinegar history

Fermented alcoholic beverages and vinegar are so closely interrelated that the production of vinegar is thought to be as old as alcohol brewing.

What is pH of Vinegar?

The pH level of vinegar is 2-3. Vinegar is acidic.

Vinegar was used by the Babylonians around 5,000 years ago, and was consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as ancient Egyptians, Persians and Israelites. Vinegar has been detected in Egyptian pottery dated as far back as 3,000 BCE. When mixed with water and honey, vinegar was consumed as a refreshing beverage called Oxymel or Oxycrat (ancient Greece) or Sekanjabin (Iran).

Traditional balsamic vinegar is widely considered to be the finest of all vinegars. Traditional balsamic is produced only in the region of Modena (Italy) from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, in strict accordance with traditional processes. Like wine, balsamic is aged in wooden barrels specially selected for their flavour and continues to age in the bottle—the oldest are aged for over 150 years.

More recently, white vinegar production became a controversial topic, when the media learnt that white vinegar could be derived from petroleum according to US Food and Drug Administration regulations. Petroleum is not used to create vinegar directly but is instead used to make ethanol alcohol. The ethanol could then conceivably be used in vinegar making. It is unclear how widely manufactured petroleum-derived white vinegar is in reality as manufacturers are not required to disclose this information to the public.


Did you enjoy this article ‘What is in Vinegar’?

If you’d like to learn more about the processed foods we eat everyday, please check out my non-fiction food comic book How Food is Made: An illustrated guide to how everyday food is produced. The book features 60 common foods, detailing their history and manufacturing process using illustrations and food infographics.

If you have ever wondered where factory food really comes from and how it is made, this book is for you. Don’t just take my word for it. The press and readers love the book too – check out media and reviews here. Find out more about the book here and view a free sample from the book here.

Thanks for reading!

-Ayla Marika

Credits: Featured image photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

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