Vinegar is seemingly everywhere these days: Red wine vinegar hiding in salad dressings, balsamic vinegar reduced into a glaze for your steak, a shot of apple cider vinegar for whatever ails you, and white vinegar sprayed onto windows for that streak-free shine. Umpteen types line store shelves for your shopping pleasure, making home cooks fret as much about the best vinegar for their next cooking adventure as they do about which salt is best for seasoning.

Share on Pinterest
Getty Images

It’s super easy to fall down the rabbit hole of each individual vinegar varietal as well. What’s the difference between the $100 and $10 bottles of balsamic? Is white wine vinegar the same as white vinegar? Here, we’ll help dig you back out of the rabbit hole with an easy how-to guide to differentiate between two of the most popular types of vinegars: balsamic and white.

At its core, balsamic is a grape-based vinegar. Despite its deep, reddish-brown hue, balsamic is made from pressed white grapes, called must, which are traditionally Italian grapes such as Trebbiano. In the most classic Modena style, the must is boiled down to a thick syrup then put into wooden kegs to age. Each year the syrup is transferred into successively smaller kegs as moisture evaporates, concentrating the flavor even further. These traditionally made and highly regulated balsamics age for a minimum of 12 years, but some are aged for 25 years and there are even those that are aged for up to 100! The final product is a thick, viscous syrup with a concentrated flavor — not the kind of thin balsamic that you would pour over your salad. These curated liquids are designed for either drinking straight or drizzling as a finish over foods such as risotto and fruits. They are also the kind that pack quite the punch in your wallet: A bottle—which you can identify by the description “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” and a D.O.P. stamp certifying its quality, style of production, and origin—can cost upwards of $100 for three ounces.

But fear not: As your supermarket shelves will show you, there are more affordable and versatile options at your disposal. Reach for a balsamic with an I.G.P. label, which is also certified as balsamic but not under the same strict regulations as a D.O.P. batch. I.G.P. balsamics are still made with grape must, but aren’t aged the same way and probably also have either a little wine vinegar to increase the acidity or other additives, such as thickeners or coloring agents. To see how pure your bottle is, simply check the label: If grape must is the only ingredient, you’ve got a high quality, more pure bottle. Vinegar on the label is okay, but if it’s listed first before the grape must, then your bottle is less pure and probably has a more sharp, tangy flavor. In any case, your I.G.P. bottle is what you’ll want to use for salad dressings, stews, reductions, and other common balsamic uses. You can easily create a rich balsamic syrup by reducing a cup of I.G.P. in a saucepan over a long slow simmer.

If you were to walk in a stranger’s house and guess one type of vinegar they might have in their pantry, white vinegar would be a safe bet. A great vinegar to use from pickling to cleaning, white vinegar can do quite a lot. Be careful though: Many people will confuse white vinegar with white wine vinegar, which aren’t the same. White wine vinegar is made from…wait for it…white wine. Easy! However, white vinegar is made with acetic acid, which is derived from grain or grain alcohol. Simply diluting the acetic acid with distilled water results in a sour vinegar with a very high acid level ranging from 4% to 7%. Unlike balsamic, which has many different versions, white vinegar is white vinegar. The only difference would be in the strength of the acid, but that’s not anything you would notice while cooking.

Because of its strength, you’ll need to be careful how you use white vinegar. Remember, this stinky liquid is strong enough to clean counters and scorched pans. Unlike balsamic or white wine vinegars, white vinegar is not the stuff for drizzling in large quantities over your food. It balances well by using just a few drops to cut down on sweet flavors in foods like ketchup and barbecue sauce. However, if you have a large bottle that you want to use at once, pickling or fermenting will be your jam. In the end, these great varieties of vinegars, along with all of their brethren, are not only useful staples in the pantry but also the star of many recipes.

Most of the time when someone says the word “balsamic,” you instinctively want to say “vinaigrette.” It’s the perfect ingredient for an effortless, healthy topping that once you make it at home, you’ll never want to buy the store stuff again. Balsamic vinaigrette is also super customizable: For this recipe, if you don’t have a great quality balsamic you may want to increase the honey; if you prefer it tangier increase the balsamic or add a little lemon juice to make it bright and tart. Use whatever herbs suit your fancy to make it your own. Get the recipe.

This delicious, delicate dessert is a marvelous demonstration of how something as tangy as vinegar can go well with a dessert. Poaching the pears in balsamic gives them both a gorgeous hue and the deep flavor of subdued sweetness all in one. Top with a little ice cream and you’ll impress whomever you serve it to, even if it’s just yourself. Get the recipe.

It seems almost criminal to put a recipe for balsamic glaze because it’s so simple it’s barely a recipe. However, if you need some guidance, this one works quite well. Use a better-than-average balsamic to cook down, and if you don’t want it too sweet you can actually make it without the honey. My favorite is to drizzle it over caprese (tomato, basil, and mozzarella) skewers for dinner parties, but this goes great over desserts, fruit, salmon…well, pretty much anything you can think of. Get the recipe.

This juicy steak is a quintessential example of how balsamic can make an excellent marinade without rendering the food overly bitter or tangy. The marinade, elevated with brown sugar and marjoram, is easy to whip up before letting the steaks soak for a half hour. Remember to save some marinade for the relish. Get our Balsamic Marinated Grilled Flank Steak with Bell Pepper Relish recipe.

Love pickles? Don’t understand canning? Fridge pickles are for you! Using cucumbers, white vinegar, dill, and just a few other ingredients, you can turn cucumbers into pickles in your fridge in just a matter of days. Be sure to use canning salt, feel free to add sugar or red pepper flakes to sweet or sour them up, and enjoy anytime you choose. Get the recipe.

If you’re into tangy slaws, or just want to lighten up on calories by avoiding mayo-based ones, a white vinegar-based slaw is just what you need. The acidity of the vinegar adds tang to the sweet ingredients and gives a little something extra to the veggies. This recipe adds a unique flavor with the celery seed addition. Enjoy as a side (with the fridge pickles, of course) to any dish, or top on pulled pork or tacos. Get the recipe.

When I crave savory foods, nothing satisfies nearly as much as salt and vinegar chips, or dumping a bunch of malt vinegar on a pile of fries. Here, you get the same flavor in a homemade dish with fewer calories and preservatives. Apple cider vinegar works well here too in case your bottle of white vinegar runs out. Get the recipe.