Check That Vinegar Label

Until recently, cider and distilled vinegar sold in the United States was dependably diluted to 5-percent acetic acid. All U.S. Department of Agriculture home-canning recipes that call for vinegar specify a strength of 5 percent, and in writing recipes myself I’ve assumed that cider or distilled vinegar will have this strength. When I’ve called for wine vinegar, I’ve assumed a strength of at least 5 percent, since wine vinegars on the market sometimes range in strength as high as 7 percent. Only when I’ve specified rice vinegar have I allowed for less acidity, because rice vinegars are typically sold at 4 to 4.3 percent acid.

At a class I recently taught at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City, a student told me she’d bought a bottle of Four Monks cider vinegar labeled as 4 percent acid. I was perplexed, especially because Four Monks is one of the country’s leading producers of vinegar for home canning, if not the leading producer. And then another student pointed out that the wine vinegar we’d just used for pickling plums was also labeled, by a company I’d never heard of, as 4 percent acid.

At home a few days later, I checked the Food and Drug Administration’s “standard of identity” for vinegar. This regulation requires a minimum acidity of only 4 percent, for vinegar of any sort. So Mizkan, the Japanese company that owns Four Monks, and other 4-percent producers are staying within the law, while hoping consumers won’t notice the change. Or maybe they’re hoping we’ll die quietly?

Actually, if you’ve accidentally pickled with 4-percent vinegar, your family is highly unlikely to die of botulism. USDA pickle recipes, and most of my own, produce pickles far lower in pH (and therefore higher in acid) than the 4.6 percent that’s considered the safe limit for avoiding botulism. If you’re worried, you can buy yourself a pH meter and check your pickles, after the jars have sat on the shelf for several weeks (grind up a jarful in a blender, add distilled water if the slurry is very thick, and calibrate your pH meter before taking the measurement).

If you’re using old family recipes, though, your pickles canned with 4-percent vinegar may possibly be dangerously low in acid. At the very least, you probably didn’t get what you thought you’d paid for.

If you have 4-percent vinegar sitting on your shelf right now, you can still use it for pickling if you follow the formula I published earlier this year for rice vinegar.

The next time you go shopping for vinegar, be sure to read the label carefully. Look for the percentage of acid, and while you’re add it make sure you don’t buy “apple cider flavored vinegar”—distilled vinegar with flavor chemicals added—in place of true cider vinegar. That ugly bit of marketing trickery has been going on for about fifteen years now.

 

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About Linda Ziedrich

I grow, cook, preserve, and write about food in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
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29 Responses to Check That Vinegar Label

  1. val says:

    I was surprised when I read the label of a gallon jug of white vinegar recently. I had purchase it for cleaning anyway, but thought I could use it when I was low on other vinegars for pickling. It said something to the effect that it was “for cleaning only” as it had been diluted, and was not suitable for any culinary use.

  2. Mary Ann says:

    Thanks for the heads up. So what brands are you using and where are you buying them? No grocery store I regularly use carries white or red wine vinegar any more. :(

  3. I’ve bought gallon jugs of Four Monks red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar, both labeled 5 percent and priced very low (about $5), at Mega Foods in Albany. Strangely, the store hasn’t carried gallon jugs of cider vinegar for at least six months, though they have the store brand of “apple cider flavored vinegar.”

    I think that many Costco stores carry red wine vinegar by the gallon, no?

  4. Marisa says:

    I ran into that whole Apple Cider Flavored Vinegar this summer at a Winco in Portland and was totally stunned (it was the first time I’d encountered it before). I’ve not spotted more dilute vinegar yet, but I will keep my eyes peeled. Thank you for the warning!

  5. Cynthia says:

    I had to check my vinegar stock – Heinz Apple Cider FLAVORED vinegar (I didn’t know they were doing that – never will I buy it again) 5%, Meijer (store brand in Michigan and way cheaper than Heinz) Apple Cider vinegar (not flavored) 5%. Meijer store brand white vinegar 5%.

  6. Elisabeth says:

    So slightly off topic: does anyone know if one can get a hold of really strong vinegar for cooking, like 12% or even 24% acetic acid by volume. I have recipes from Sweden that call for their really strong vinegar (called ättika or more specifically ättiksprit for the 12%) that I’m not sure how to replicate with the weaker American stuff.

    • That’s interesting, Elisabeth. How do the Swedes use the really strong vinegar?

      • LIli says:

        Hi – just found your article, so late do this discussion but if you can share any insight it would be greatly appreciated… I am Swedish, and I am running out of my 12% vinegar. Swedish stores in my area used to sell the stuff, but I think changed rules re: import have brought an – unfortunate – end to this. All of my Swedish recipes calls for this strength vinegar. For pickled herring, for example, you make a 1-2-3 pickling solution (1 part vinegar, 2 parts sugar, 3 parts water) plus spices/herbs etc according to recipe. How do I substitute the weaker 5% stuff, and what will it do to the fish?? Please help…ANY insight would help!! Happy Holidays and many many thanks!! Lili

      • To substitute 5-percent vinegar for 12-percent vinegar in the herring recipe, use 2.4 parts vinegar to 2 parts sugar and 1.6 parts water. To make such calculations yourself, see Rice Vinegar for Home Canning.

  7. val says:

    This has become more timely for me, because I just purchased rice vinegar to pickle ginger, and it is 4.5%. Would you bother with the conversions for that .1% difference? (assuming 4.6% is ideal)

  8. 4.5 is actually a little higher than usual for rice vinegar.

    Pickled ginger isn’t usually canned, since most people make only one jar at a time (a little pickled ginger goes a long way!). So any percentage between 4.0 and 5.0 would be fine for a recipe such as the one in The Joy of PIckling or the slightly different one I developed for Fine Cooking (see http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/homemade-pickled-ginger.aspx).

    By the way, in mentioning an ideal 4.6 percent acid you may be thinking of a pH of 4.6. That’s the maximum pH that’s safe for canned pickles that have reached equilibrium (i.e., that have sat on a shelf for a few weeks). Percent acid, determined by titration, is an entirely different measurement.

  9. Val says:

    Thanks so much for the explanation and correcting my misunderstanding.
    I now have two jars of gorgeous pickled ginger in my fridge–lucked out with some fresh pink ginger at the farmers’ market! Made your crystallized ginger and syrup too, divine!

  10. Sebastian says:

    I have a quick question. I have been trying for months to find White Wine Vinegar where I live, but it has been impossible.

    Can I substitute it with a different vinegar ????? or could you please give me suggestions.

    Ive been holding a lot of recipes because of this and I want to make them, please help!

    Thanks in advanced

    • Sebastian,
      White wine vinegar is sometimes hard to find in the United States, too, at least in large quantities. The more traditional vinegar here is made from apple cider. But today most manufacturers and a lot of home cooks use distilled vinegar for pickling, because it’s cheap. Although it has a sharper flavor than natural vinegar, it is an acceptable substitute.
      Other kinds of vinegar are common in other parts of the world. East Asia uses mainly rice-wine vinegar; malt vinegar is popular in England; and coconut and pineapple vinegars are used in tropical regions. You can use any of these or any other vinegar, if the color suits your purposes. Also, if you’re canning your pickles, make sure the acetic acid level is at least 5 percent, or adjust the recipe accordingly.

  11. Mary Ann says:

    I pulled out my Fred Meyer apple cider vinegar yesterday to make a recipe and noted that it says that it’s 5% acidity, the percentage recommended for pickling. And it seems to be authentic apple cider, not distiller vinegar colored and flavored to look like apple cider.

  12. Melody says:

    Thanks for the info. I’m diluting vinegar that I buy here for use in recipes from back home. In Russia the vinegar sold for pickling is 70%. Yes, you read that right seventy! The stuff is poison, very dangerous. Local recipes call for one teaspoon per litre of liquid. Even the standard one sold for “table use” like salads and things is 9%. It makes the recipe math difficult for me sometimes, thanks for the calculator.

    • That’s really interesting, Melody. If Russian consumers use a lot of distilled vinegar, selling it at high concentrations is surely a way to avoid waste. But doesn’t anyone there pickle with natural vinegar?

  13. I am living in Russia and went to the store and bought vinegar for my salad.
    When I tasted it “HOLY MACKEREL” it took a layer of skin off my tongue !! I was 2 days recovering.
    It is 70%. If there is a market for it State Side can I import it ?

    • Robert, do you mean you want to import 70-percent vinegar to the United States? I would guess that very strong vinegar is already available here for non-food industrial applications. If you want to import it for culinary use, you’ll need to check with the FDA. My guess is that this would not be permitted.

  14. I think that the importation of 70-percent vinegar might not be permitted because it doesn’t fit the FDA definition of vinegar and because, as you found out, the stuff is strong enough to be dangerous. But please don’t assume that my guess is right. You can find FDA rules regarding vinegar online.

  15. Joan Armstead says:

    Well, hello! I found agardenerstable.com when I did a search for what is considered weak vinegar. I know about how common vinegar’s acidity was changed without telling anyone and I made my own apple cider vinegar two falls ago, but not yet used any. (The recipe suggest a bit of it be added to apple cider and left to turn.) I really think I’ll pick up an acidity tester! That is all a side-trip, however, as the reason I was looking for a definition of weak vinegar is that I am about to use my mother’s circa 1950 Kerr Canning Book recipe for rhubarb conserve and it calls for 3 cups of weak vinegar. After reading the comments on this page, I am leaning toward using rice vinegar. Gosh, I know my mom taught me about the dilution of vinegar once upon a time, but can’t recall this one. If Mom were still with us today, she would be 99 years old! She also instructed me how to preserve most everything and taught me to watch for 5% acidity, read labels, etc. I attribute my good health to date to her understanding of and dedication to organically grown foods, and a certain sort of “natural-thinking” passed from her pioneering ascendants. So, I just want to say thank you for this website and for the information to get me started on the path to acidity accuracy in usage of vinegars! Oh, one more thing: 1/2 cup of natural apple cider vinegar (5% acidity) added to a hot bath to soak in after a day of hard labor will pretty much take away the next-day effects of sore muscles! Prevention is a good thing. Hope this finds you well, Joany from the Glenwood District, Springfield, Oregon.

    • Welcome, Joan! I don’t know what would have been considered a weak vinegar in 1950, but 4.0 to 4.3 percent–the usual range for rice vinegar–seems a good guess. Of course, you could instead use a 5-percent vinegar cut with a little water. Four parts 5-percent vinegar combined with 1 part water would give you 4-percent vinegar.

  16. PerAnna says:

    I want to make German style radish and carrot salads which is the veggies, salt, pepper a little oil and vinegar. I couldn’t find the 9% or 12% but I did find the 70% at a Russian food store. Pretty strong and I am not sure how to use it when my recipe only calls for 1/4 cup of vinegar. I read your article on how to make the 5% into a higher acid value. How do you dilute down 70% to get 9%?

    • Since 70-percent acetic acid (this stuff isn’t truly vinegar) has a different density from water, my scientific advisor says the calculation should be done by weight rather that by volume. You need 6.8 parts water, by weight, to 1 part 70-percent acetic acid to equal the strength of 9-percent vinegar. He calculated this way: 1 gram of 70-percent acetic acid solution contains 0.7 g acetic acid. 0.7 grams acetic acid divided by x equals 0.09, so x equals 7.78. Since you started with 1 gram of solution, you subtract 1 from 7.78 to get 6.78, or about 6.8 grams, water. Now, if you’d prefer to use volume measurements, figure this way: Since the density of 70-percent acetic acid is 1.069 grams per milliliter, the volume of water to add to 1 milliliter of 70-percent acetic acid is 6.8 times 1.069, or 7.25 milliliters. I hope this makes sense! Now, please tell me, isn’t 5- to 7-percent vinegar strong enough for a salad?

      • PerAnna says:

        Thank you very much for the conversion and explanations. I appreciate the time and effort. Oddly enough it has a whole different taste using 5 and I have never seen 7%. I suppose if I could find 7% I would try it. She used to buy the 12% at a German Deli when she could find it and wouldn’t use 5%. Now for some German style veggie salad. Thanks again.

  17. You’re welcome!

    I’ve bought 7-percent wine vinegar imported from Italy. But 5 to 6 percent is certainly more common on store shelves.

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