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Pickled foods, ACV, and “clean” housecleaning are all the rage RN. And they all have one thing in common: vinegar.
Whatever you’re using it for, having a better understanding of vinegar — including what its pH is — can help you maximize its many benefits.
Ready for a throwback to chem class? Here’s everything you need to know about the pH and strength of vinegar and how they affect how you should use it.
What are the pH and strength of vinegar?
Most vinegars have a pH of 2 to 3 and a strength of 4 to 8 percent.
On a technical level, vinegar is a solution of acetic acid and water. There are many types of vinegar. The main difference between types is the sugar source — like alcohol, grapes, apples, or rice — that’s fermented to create each one.
During fermentation, the sugar turns into acetic acid, which is the common denominator among all types of vinegar. It’s that sour, acidic taste and smell. It’s also what makes vinegar acidic.
Acetic vs. acidic
Acetic acid is the type of acid found in vinegar.
Acidic is an adjective used to describe solutions. Anything with a pH lower than 7 is considered an acidic solution.
“Dang, that acetic acid sure is acidic!”
pH is a measure of how acidic or basic a solution is — but we’re not talking oversized sweaters and PSLs basic.
It’s a scale that ranges from 0 to 14, with a lower pH being more acidic and a higher pH being more basic:
- Bases have a pH of 7.1 or greater. Baking soda, ammonia, lye, and oven cleaner are common bases.
- Acids have a pH of 6.9 or lower. Some common acids are vinegar, lemon juice, battery acid, and hydrochloric (stomach) acid.
Solutions in the middle (around 7.0), like water, milk, and eggs, are considered more neutral.
Strength and pH are tied together but mean different things. Generally, strength refers to the concentration (or percentage) of an acid in a given solution.
Most vinegars contain 4 to 8 percent acetic acid, which means they have a strength (also sometimes called acidity) of 4 to 8 percent. Some vinegars contain up to 20 percent acetic acid — but any solution with more than 11 percent is strong enough to literally burn your eyes and skin.
How are they tied together, you ask? Well, if you add water to an acidic solution such as vinegar, you’re decreasing the concentration of acetic acid and therefore increasing the pH of the solution. This means you’re making it less acidic overall. Still with us?
Want to see for yourself what the pH and strength of your vinegar are? Here are the deets.
First, you’ll need some pH testing strips. Once you have those, testing is pretty simple. Here’s how:
- Follow the instructions on the package (usually “dip for x seconds”).
- Compare your results to the chart on the package.
The strips change color to indicate the pH level, so it should be pretty easy to tell how acidic your vinegar is.
You should be able to find out the strength of vinegar from the manufacturer (Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar includes this info in its Amazon listing).
But if you’re making your own vinegar or just feel like doing a little chemistry, you’ll need to use a titration kit. The kit will include a basic solution (usually sodium hydroxide), a syringe, a testing cup, and an indicator solution (phenolphthalein).
You’ll slowly add the basic solution to the vinegar until the indicator solution changes color. Based on how much of the basic solution you’ve added up to that point, you’ll know the concentration of acid in your vinegar.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Absolutely. Here’s the deal on the right pH and strength levels for all your vinegar needs.
Most cooking vinegars (like balsamic, red wine, and rice vinegars) have a pH of 2 to 3 and a strength of 4 to 6 percent.
This allows you to add some acidity to your dish (acting as a counterpoint to richness or adding sour flavor) without making it taste funky (unless you spill the bottle into your food… whoops!).
It’s not a good idea to cook with anything stronger than this, because it can straight-up erode your tooth enamel.
Most pickling recipes call for distilled white vinegar, which has a pH of 2.5 and a strength of 5 percent. It’s cheap, easy to find at any grocery store, and slightly more acidic than other vinegars. This extra acidity makes it a pickler’s best friend because it helps curb the growth of bacteria.
Additionally, most recipes will call for at least some water to decrease the sourness from the vinegar. But if you’re a sucker for the pucker, adding water isn’t required.
Just make sure you don’t put in more water than the recipe calls for. This can increase the pH (making it less acidic), which may allow for bacterial growth.
The acetic acid in vinegar might have some beneficial health effects, especially when it comes to regulating appetite and blood sugar levels.
Enter: ACV (apple cider vinegar). It has a pH of 3.5 and a strength of 5 percent. It’s preferred for supplementing because it contains all kinds of good stuff, such as nutrients and antioxidants from the apple juice it’s made from and probiotics.
But before drinking it, be sure to dilute it significantly — to the tune of about 8 ounces of water for every tablespoon of vinegar — so you don’t damage your teeth.
Also, don’t take more than 2 tablespoons or so per day — taking large quantities could hurt your esophagus!
Standard 5 percent distilled white vinegar with a pH of 2.5 is the best around for cleaning. It’s acidic enough to kill bacteria, and it probably has the most neutral smell of all the vinegars.
If you’re using vinegar to clean something with a large surface area, you may want to dilute it — mainly so your house doesn’t smell, well, like vinegar. There are also TONS of recipes online, some even using essential oils to make fabulous-smelling natural cleaners.
For smaller, dirtier jobs — sink and bathtub drains, toilets, showerheads, etc. — no dilution is necessary.
Industrial-strength vinegar at 10 to 25 percent concentrations (and pH levels as low as 2.1) is used for weed killing. (It’s got that Thanos action… just dissolves ’em.)
This stuff can MESS. YOU. UP. If you get your hands on vinegar that’s anywhere near this strong, you need to glove up, wear goggles, and be extremely careful.
- Vinegar is essentially a solution of acetic acid and water. Acetic acid makes vinegar acidic.
- Most vinegars have a pH of 2 to 3 and a strength of 4 to 8 percent.
- You can test the pH and strength of vinegar using inexpensive testing kits.
- The pH and strength of different vinegars affects how you should use them.