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 at 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.


43 thoughts on “Check That Vinegar Label”

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

      1. 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

    1. If you have access to a Polish or Russian market in your area, they may carry it. The Polish one is called “Ocet Spirytusowy” and is 10%. I’m on here for the same reason 0 trying to figure out how to adjust for the acidity difference between American and European vinegar to accommodate recipes being exchanged both ways.

    2. Elisabeth, the easiest source for 10% vinegar, which should work for you, is at a natural gardening center. This strength is used in homemade herbicides by organic gardeners. (I refer you to for more info on that topic) If you want something stronger you could just Google 12% or 24% acetic acid, (which is actually only one component of vinegar).

  7. 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

    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. 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. 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

    1. 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. 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. 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.

    1. 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 ?

    1. 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.

    1. Hi Linda – I think protecting us from ourselves has gone far enough. If it weren’t for all the easy lives of most attorneys in the US, it would still be the home of the brave !

    2. Hi there! I am form Slovakia but I have been living in the US for 10 years. There is a Russian store where I buy 9% vinegar for nickeling the cucumbers BUT they were out today and since I already have my cucumbers I needed to buy 70% distilled vinegar. It is very commonly used in Eastern Europe 0 it is not a poison – you just use very little of it 🙂 So I am going to do the calculations tonight how to get a 9% vinegar from 70% by dilution…

  15. Well, hello! I found 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.

    1. 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. 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%?

    1. 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?

      1. 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. Thank you very much for the explanation! I use vinegar for cleaning and for conserving pickles and peppers. The vinegar I use for cleaning is either simple white distilled vinegar by Heinz or the cleaning vinegar spray by Four Monks. When preparing my pickles I buy apple-cider vinegar from 5%. I am happy to find your post and learn more about the differences and what I must look for on the labels!

  18. You may have helped cause them to back down on the cider vinegar!

    As recently as 5th July 2016 (5 days ago), I happened to be on their site for this exact reason, to verify that this was still the case, and so I can verify that Heinz’s consumer site still listed, as you observed in 1998 in “The Joy of Pickling” (page 10), the apple cider flavoured vinegar — “distilled vinegar from grain, natural flavor with caramel color diluted to a uniform pickling and table strength of 5% (50 grains) acid” as their main cider offering (along with the premium unfiltered with “mother”, which is pure, which I’m guessing is their answer to Bragg’s etc..)

    But now, today, 5 days later, 10th July 2016, while the unfiltered choice remains the same, the “flavoured” main offering has disappeared from the consumer site, and been replaced with one that is “Made from the juice of apples diluted with water to a uniform pickling and table strength of 5% (50 grains) acidity.”

    Their unfiltered version remains unchanged. And, the flavoured remains both on their catering site today and still seems to be as of today at any rate the offering out in the retail distribution chain at etc.

    (p.s I notice that Heinz Canada is now offering pickling vinegar at 7% which doesn’t seem be on the US site.)

  19. What an interesting site! Thank you for all this information! I am returning to canning and preserving after a decades-long absence and am trying to bring myself back up to speed on all the safety requirements. Hence, my research on vinegars.

    However, I am at a conundrum. I have an English recipe for a red onion chutney that calls for red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar. Nothing confusing there. In my pantry, I have a bottle of Mission Fig Balsamic vinegar, bought at a local gourmet oil and vinegar shop, I’d like to use in the recipe, but its label shows no level of acetic acid. When I tasted the balsamic, it’s definitely vinegar, but had a sweetness to it. The shop was no help when I called for more information.

    Is there an FDA minimum standard for domestic balsamic vinegar? Do you think it could be safely used in a water bath canned product destined for a couple months of shelf aging?

    Thank you for any direction you can offer.

    1. Here’s a statement from the FDA: “Natural vinegars as they come from the generators normally contain in excess of 4 grams of acetic acid per 100 mL. When vinegar is diluted with water, the label must bear a statement such as “diluted with water to _______ percent acid strength”, with the blank filled with the actual percent of acetic acid – in no case should it be less than 4 percent. Each of the varieties of vinegar listed below should contain 4 grams of acetic acid per 100 mL.(20oC).” In the list of vinegars following this statement, however, there is no mention of vinegars made from fruits other than apples or grapes (see So perhaps balsamic vinegar made from figs is exempt from the rule, or perhaps your vinegar is exempt because it hasn’t been diluted. Balsamic vinegars made from grapes are usually at least 6 percent acetic acid, and the fig vinegar is probably comparable. I would check with the manufacturer to be sure, or simply add a little extra red wine vinegar to the chutney.

      1. Thank you for your insight! I’ve bookmarked your reply for future reference. The recipe called for just 3 tablespoons of balsamic, along with 7 ounces of red wine vinegar. I believe it will be fine. It started with 2 quarts of thinly sliced onions, which ended up reducing to just over 3 five-ounce jars. Tons of concentrated flavors!

  20. Great Page!! I’m in the lengthy process of getting permitted to make and sell wine vinegar, specifically rhubarb wine vinegar and mead vinegar (honey wine) and because of your page, I see there is also a need for higher level acetic acid types of vinegar. However, because of the fda laws, it may not be able to be called vinegar, since they regulate the maximum amount of acetic acid allow. I’ll research more. I know I’ve been diluting mine down to the 5% with water. Thanks for the information on your page. btw, the laws have apparently been written by lobbyists of big companies. The paperwork is astounding.

  21. I remember fondly as a child with my folks stopping at a chuckwagon food truck selling fresh cut fries by the roadside. Me putting a bit of salt and vinegar on my fries and having a chill and tingle all over my body. Seems the vinegar in those days had more taste. Am I wrong. What could be the acidic percentage the 50’s. Anybody know?

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