“Pickling vinegar” is an elusive term.
It is not a legally-defined item with strict definitions to it.
It can be used to mean some quite different products by various food manufacturing companies.
Here, we look at and compare pickling vinegars in North America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand.
- 1 What do the National Center / USDA say
- 2 About vinegar strength
- 3 Three categories of pickling vinegar strengths
- 4 What is the advantage of using stronger vinegars in pickling
- 5 Is pickling vinegar always super strong
- 6 Concentrated pickling vinegars
- 7 Flavoured pickling vinegars
- 8 Can you follow the canning directions provided by pickling vinegar makers
- 9 Can you re-use used pickling vinegar
- 10 Testing the strength of vinegar at home
- 11 Not all strong vinegars are pickling vinegars
- 12 Other random facts about vinegar strength
- 13 Further reading
What do the National Center / USDA say
In North America, what constitutes picking vinegar is defined by strength.
The minimum acidity accepted for pickling uses is 5 %, and that is also assumed to be the standard strength.
The default pickling vinegar is also assumed to be white distilled vinegar made from grain, usually corn.
Thus, the “norm” for picking vinegar in North America is 5%, white distilled vinegar. It is this vinegar upon which Ball, Bernardin, the USDA, etc., base their recipes.
The normal alternative is 5% apple cider vinegar.
- White distilled vinegar gives a clarity to pickled items, and is cheap, but some people feel its taste is harsh;
- Apple cider vinegar can colour pickled items brown,, and is more expensive, but some people prefer its flavour.
The USDA Complete Guide (2015) says,
White distilled and cider vinegars of 5 percent acidity (50 grain) are recommended. White vinegar is usually preferred when light color is desirable, as is the case with fruits and cauliflower.”1
The National Center says,
Use apple cider or white distilled vinegar, but the pickles may taste best with the recommended type in the recipe. Apple cider vinegar is milder and offers a different flavor note than white distilled vinegar. Any vinegar should be at least five percent acetic acid.”2
The authors of So Easy to Preserve (who are associated with both the above organizations) say:
Use cider or white vinegar of 5-percent acidity (50 grain). This is the level of acidity in most commercially bottled vinegars. Cider vinegar has a good flavor and aroma, but may darken white or light-coloured fruits and vegetables. White distilled vinegar is often used for onions, cauliflower and pears where clearness of color is desired.
Do not use homemade vinegar or vinegar of unknown acidity in pickling. Do not dilute the vinegar unless the recipe specifies, because you will be diluting the preservative effect. If a less sour product is preferred, add sugar rather than decrease the vinegar.”3
About vinegar strength
The strength of a consumer-grade vinegar is measured by what concentration of acetic acid is in it.
A standard household vinegar (in North America, the UK, Germany) is 5% strength.
Standard household vinegar is only 4% in Australia and New Zealand.
While a 6% vinegar might seem like it’s only 1% stronger than 5%, in fact, that 1% increase in acetic acid makes it 20% stronger than the 5%.
Three categories of pickling vinegar strengths
There are three broad categories of pickling vinegar strengths commercially available:
- ready to use straight from bottle, undiluted;
- can be used straight from bottled, undiluted, or mixed with water;
- must be diluted otherwise far too strong.
What is the advantage of using stronger vinegars in pickling
A 5% strength vinegar will give you all the strength you need for safety. It’s the strength that the USDA bases all its recommendations on.
So what advantage is there in using 6% or 7%?
We’re not sure.
Sarson’s vinegar in England claims that stronger vinegar results in longer-lasting pickles.
“Sarson’s Pickling Vinegars are brewed to a special strength to preserve your vegetables for longer.”4
We can’t find anything else from any source, reputable or otherwise, that addresses that claim.
Is pickling vinegar always super strong
Some people think something labelled “pickling vinegar” means that it’s stronger than the standard 5% ones.
But in fact, that depends on what brand you are buying, and in what country.
In New Zealand, Tastemaker Pickling Vinegar is 5.5% acidity. In the UK, Sarson’s Malt Pickling Vinegar is 6%.
In the United States, Heinz says that its regular 5% vinegar also just happens to be pickling vinegar:
All Heinz® Distilled White Vinegars and Heinz® Apple Cider Vinegars are “pickling strength” (5 percent acidity)…”5
In Canada, however, in addition to the same 5% vinegar it sells in the States, Heinz also sells a distinct product that it labels “pickling vinegar”, marked as being 7% strength.
The label reads: “220 ml of pickling vinegar can be substituted for 250 ml of regular white vinegar.” Essentially, for every cup of regular (5%) vinegar called for, they are saying you can only use reduce that cup (16 tablespoons) by 2 tablespoons (30 ml). (It doesn’t seem like much of a vinegar savings and besides, the biggest problem people seem to have with pickling brine is running short of it, so using less vinegar doesn’t seem like a benefit.)
Bernardin, the reputable Canadian source for home canning recipes, does not draw on this 7% vinegar, following instead the USDA commercial standard of 5%.
As long as your pickling vinegar is in the 5 to 7% range, then we’d suggest that they could all be used interchangeably, and as long as the vinegar you use is at least the % stated in the tested recipe you are using, you’re good. Just remember that the minimum strength you want is 5%. We have not done by any means an extensive review which would be a whole separate project, but for what it’s worth, that appears to be the standard quoted rule of thumb in Germany and England as well.
Concentrated pickling vinegars
Concentrated pickling vinegars are popular in Germany. They appear to all be
Concentrated vinegar is known as “EssigEssenz” (“vinegar essence”). Vinegar diluted down to cooking use strength is known as “hellen Essig” (light vinegar.)
The Kuhne brand is called EssigEssenz, with a strength of 20%.6 For dilution advice, contact the maker.
The Surig brand is 25% (not 28% as some sources erroneously say.)
We see conflicting advice on how to dilute Surig.
The Food Monitor website says, “The strongest recommended solution (1: 2 dilution) results in an approximately 8% acid. (Bei der stärksten empfohlenen Lösung (1:2-Verdünnung) ergibt sich eine etwa 8%ige Säure”)7 A vendor in Australia says, “Surig vinegar essence diluted with 4 times the amount of water, wine, apple juice or other aromatic liquids, yields 5% vinegar.”8 A usage brochure (in German) is here but it doesn’t cover how to get it to pickling strength. We’d recommend that you contact Surig directly and ask them.
Hengstenberg’s concentrated vinegar also happens to be seasoned. It is called “Einmach Meister” (“preserving master.”) The description reads, “In addition to herbs & spices it already contains salt & sugar.” Their usage directions say to add 1.5 litres of water to a 750 ml bottle.9
For all such vinegars, again, we’d suggest that you check with the maker for directions for diluting. And while you are at it, be sure to ask them what vinegar strength you would arrive at after following their dilution instructions.
Once diluted down to 5% strength, the tried and true safety rules for pickling brine strength could then apply.
Aside from that, we don’t have any other safety guideline advice to point you to in using this.
Flavoured pickling vinegars
Vinegars sold as pickling vinegars can be plain, or, already spiced and seasoned.
If a pickling recipe calls for “spiced vinegar”, it means “spiced pickling vinegar”.
In North America, spiced pickling vinegars are not common. Instead, the practice is to take vinegar, and add your own pickling spice as part of the recipe.
In Europe, already spiced and seasoned pickling vinegars are sold next to plain pickling vinegars.
The Kuhne company in Germany sells a seasoned pickling vinegar called “Gurken Aufguss” (“Gherkin Infusion”) with a strength of 5%.
In New Zealand, the Tastemaker brand has a seasoned Pickling Vinegar which is 5.5% strength.
In England, the Sarson’s brand offers two different spiced pickling vinegars. One, in a brownish bottle, is based on malt vinegar, and has a strength of 6%. The other, in a greenish bottle, is based on white wine vinegar, and doesn’t list its strength. (They also offer a plain white pickling vinegar.)
Make your own spiced pickling vinegar
You can make your own spiced pickling vinegar. In fact, many thrifty people do that, as it’s far cheaper. Some people say they prefer to make the spiced vinegar themselves because then they know what is in it.
To make your own, per litre (quart) of 5% or higher vinegar, use either 2 tablespoons of ready-made pickling spice, OR 5 cm (2 inches) of cinnamon stick, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, 2 teaspoons allspice berries, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon mustard seed and 2 to 3 bay leaves. Combine in a pot, and bring to a simmer, and let simmer (not boil) for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, let stand for a few hours. Store in a sealed bottle until needed.
Can you follow the canning directions provided by pickling vinegar makers
In general, we’d say not to follow the canning suggestions provided by many of the pickling vinegar makers.
Many of them — such as the Sarson’s and the Tastemaker — would have you just slap a lid on your jar of pickles, and put it away without heat processing, which is unsafe.
There are some responsible ones, though. A few such as the German maker Hengstenberg call for you to heat process the jars: “Close the jars, and process them at 85 C / 185 F for 25 to 30 minutes.” (“Gläser gut verschließen, auf 85 °C erhitzen und diese Temperatur 25 bis 30 Minuten lang halten.”) This is a low temperature pasteurization method, which the USDA recognizes as valid. ( https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_06/low_temp_pasteur.html )
In general, though, we’d say to follow a tested recipe from a reputable source, who will provide the correct heat processing instructions.
Can you re-use used pickling vinegar
People often ask if you can re-use used pickling vinegar — say, vinegar from a jar of pickled onions to make another jar of pickled onions.
You definitely would not want to re-use pickling vinegar for shelf-stable products, as the vinegar will have been diluted by water leeching out from the vegetables.
You might be re-able to use for refrigerated pickled products you are making, though some people suggest boiling it first to inactivate any spoilage organisms which might have come to inhabit it from the previous open jar. But, the strength of the vinegar will also have been lowered from water from the previous product leeching into the brine. We’d suggest that you check with some Master Food Preservers first to see if there is any official advice on re-use, period.
But don’t forget, you wouldn’t have to restrict yourself to pickling uses. Depending on what the pickling vinegar originally had in it, you could also use it for sweet and sour sauces, marinades, or salad dressings.
You could also use it in non-food ways: trapping fruit flies, as a slug spray, or as a weed spray (just don’t spray it on any plants you care about.)
Testing the strength of vinegar at home
You can easily test the pH of a vinegar at home with pH strips or a pH meter. A standard 5% vinegar will have a pH of about 2.4.
Measuring the concentration of acidic acid is a lot more involved and requires a specialized kit (wine kits won’t work). We’re going to quote from the Cultures from Health web site by Julie and Eric Feickert, as they do a good job of summing it up in layman’s terms:
Test kits for measuring this quantity of acid usually run around $50 to $100. Essentially, you would add the vinegar being tested to a flask, and dilute it with water. You then add phenolphthaline, a chemical that will change color at different levels of acidity.
In a special tube flask marked with measurements in milliliters, you put a solution of sodium hydroxide, a caustic chemical that must be handled with care. This is called the titrating solution and is slowly dripped into the vinegar-phenolphthaline mixture until the vinegar solution turns pink. At this point, you can measure how much of the sodium hydroxide you have used.
Ideally, the procedure is repeated three times for accuracy. Once you have a reliable value for the volume of titrating solution, you must do some math to translate that amount into a standard measurement of grams of acetic acid in a liter of vinegar. That would be the percent strength of vinegar.”10
Pretty complicated, eh? The difficulty of accurately testing homemade vinegars may be one of the reasons the experts have just blanket-said, “don’t use them in canning!” There’s already enough work to do in the middle of the day when you are trying to squeeze in canning a batch of pickles, without going through all that pallaver.
Not all strong vinegars are pickling vinegars
One of the most important factors in choosing a vinegar for pickling is to make sure it is food grade, and not labelled as cleaning or agricultural vinegar.
Most cleaning vinegars will say not for cooking. (Heinz apparently used to say that their cleaning vinegar was “safe for cooking”, but as of 2017, they appear to have retired that product claim.)
Other random facts about vinegar strength
In the US, some vinegars such as rice vinegar may often be 4%, but that is the lowest they can be.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that vinegar products must possess a minimum of 4% acidity (FDA, 2007). European countries have regional standards for the vinegar produced or sold in the area. …. In general, the definition “vinegar” is used for products which have a minimum of 5% acidity…. Wine vinegar is exclusively obtained by acetous fermentation of wine and must have a minimum of 6% acidity…”11
In Canada, the legal range for consumers is 4.1% to 12.3%:
B.19.001 Vinegar shall be the liquid obtained by the acetous fermentation of an alcoholic liquid and shall contain not less than 4.1 per cent and not more than 12.3 per cent acetic acid.
B.19.009 The maximum limits for the acetic acid content of a vinegar described in section B.19.001 do not apply to vinegar sold only for manufacturing use if the words “For Manufacturing Use Only” are shown on the principal display panel and upon all documents pertaining to such vinegar.12
In Germany, food-grade vinegar sold to consumers must be between 5% and 15.5%. The most typical strength is 5 % to 6%. However, in Germany consumers can also buy vinegar concentrate, whose strength can go up to 25%.
Sometimes you may see “grains” used as a strength measurement.
The strength of vinegar earlier was expressed in grains, which vary from country-to-country. These grains were once literally equivalent to the number of grains of soda required to neutralize a fixed volume of vinegar.”13
“In much of the vinegar industry though, a different terminology, grain, is used. In this terminology, 10 grain is 1% acidity so 50 grain is 5%, 100 grain is 10%, etc. The term grain came from an alternate measure of weight, the grain. By dissolving a base like sodium bicarbonate or sodium hydroxide in water, you could measure how many grains it took to neutralize vinegar of a specific strength and volume. In the most common formulation, it took 10 grains (presumably of sodium hydroxide) to neutralize 1% acetic acid and so the usage of grains for vinegar strength became interchangeable.”14
[Vinegar] must contain at least 4 grams of acetic acid per 100 cubic centimeters (approximately 4% acetic acid.) This strength is referred to as 40 grain vinegar.”15
Vinegar which has water added to it to reduce its strength is not regarded as adulterated, but rather is labelled as “diluted.”16
Acetic acid is given off by an airborne bacteria which generates it as a waste product while causing a substance to ferment.
Undiluted acetic acid is called “Glacial acetic acid.”
Concentrated acetic acid is corrosive. It can burn skin and cause permanent eye damage.
Ziedrich, Linda. Check That Vinegar Label. Blog posting 11 October 2012.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. 2015. Page 1-28. ↩
Andress, Elizabeth. Pickling: Not Just For Cucumbers Anymore. June 2010. Accessed September 2017 at https://nchfp.uga.edu/tips/summer/picklingnotforcucumbers.html ↩
Andress, Elizabeth L. and Judy A. Harrison. So Easy to Preserve. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Bulletin 989. Sixth Edition. 2014. Page 125. ↩
Accessed September 2017 at https://www.kilnerjar.co.uk/perfectpickling/index.html ↩
Heinz vinegar site. Accessed September 2017 at https://www.heinzvinegar.com/tips/how-to-can ↩
Accessed September 2017 at https://www.food-monitor.de/2017/03/essig-essenz-hautvertraeglich-und-materialschonend-surig-raeumt-mit-vorurteilen-und-missverstaendnissen-auf-und-passt-angabe-der-produktstaerke/ ↩
The German Shop Australia. Accessed September 2017 at https://www.tgsdu.com.au/product/surig-essig-essenz-vinegar-essence-400ml/ ↩
“Eine Flasche Einmach Meister ergibt mit 1,5 l Wasser verdünnt die 3-fache Menge an gebrauchsfertigem Aufguss.” Accessed September 2017 at https://www.hengstenberg.de/produkte/essig/essig_klassiker/einmachmeister ↩
Julie and Eric Feickert. Cultures for health. Accessed September 2017 at https://www.culturesforhealth.com/learn/kombucha/testing-acidity-strength-vinegar/ ↩
Joshi, V.K. Indigenous Fermented Foods of South Asia. Taylor and Francis: Boca Raton, Florida. 2016. Page 601. ↩
Departmental Consolidation of the Food and Drugs Act and the Food and Drug Regulations – Part B – Division 19″ (PDF). Health Canada. March 2003. Page 590, 591. Accessed September 2017 at https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/PDF/C.R.C.,_c._870.pdf ↩
Ibid, page 601. ↩
Supreme Vinegar website. Bensalem, PA. Accessed September 2017 at https://supremevinegar.com/2017/02/08/mean-measure-vinegar-grains/ ↩
Hui, Yiu H. Ed. Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and Engineering, Volume 2. Taylor and Francis: Boca Raton, Florida. 2006. Page 72-95. ↩
Ibid., Page 72-95. ↩