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White Wine Vinegar

Published July 2017

How we tested

As vinegars go, the red and white wine varieties are utility players: Neither is as distinct as sherry, balsamic, or cider vinegar; nor is either a go-to condiment for a particular dish as sherry is for gazpacho or balsamic is for strawberries. But that’s exactly what makes them valuable as pantry staples; a good version of either can deliver a jolt of clean acidity and balanced fruity sweetness to just about any dish. However, the white wine kind has a small but significant advantage: It doesn’t impart color, which can make it the better choice for seasoning pan sauces and soups or for pickling vegetables.

Since we last tasted white wine vinegars, several products have been discontinued or become hard to find. So we rounded up eight widely available vinegars, priced from $0.21 to $0.58 per ounce, and tasted them, first in a simple vinaigrette served with mild salad greens and then simmered with sugar, salt, and herbs to make a flavorful brine for giardiniera, the classic Italian pickled vegetable medley.

From Vine to Vinegar

Most of the vinegars were well balanced, combining punchy acidity with a touch of sweetness. Tasters made note of samples that were on the “mellow” side or, conversely, were too bracing. Ultimately, we liked them all enough to recommend them (even the last-place vinegar seemed like a fine choice for vinegar lovers). However, one stood out from the pack; in addition to being well balanced, it boasted complex flavor that was “fruity,” “floral,” “aromatic,” and particularly “vibrant.”

One explanation for this vinegar’s exceptional flavor might be the wine itself. All white wine vinegar is made from white wine, which is typically processed in giant stainless-steel vats called acetators that expose the alcohol to oxygen and quickly convert it to acid. Manufacturers usually then dilute the vinegar with water to a specific acidity, between 5 and 7 percent (the acidity of all vinegars must be at least 4 percent). The particular wine that’s used to make vinegar is often hard to trace, since many manufacturers use a mix of wines or “wine stock,” a blend of lower-quality wines. But in the case of our winning vinegar, the manufacturer told us it uses wine made from Trebbiano grapes, a varietal known for being crisp and fruity. (Our runner-up wasn’t made from wine stock either but from a blend of four specific varietals that are also known for their vibrant, fruity flavors.)

Sour and Sweet

Our winning vinegar also stood out for its balance of strong acidity and subtle but distinct sweetness. In fact, this vinegar, Napa Valley Naturals Organic White Wine Vinegar, was among the most acidic vinegars we tasted. We gleaned this information from the product’s label, which listed 6 percent acidity, and confirmed this number with results from an independent laboratory, which tested the titratable acidity (a measure of how strong an acid tastes). That explains why it tasted “robust” compared with less acidic (about 5 percent acidity) vinegars, which tasted “mild” and “mellow.” That much acid would surely have tasted bracingly tart if not for a hint of sweetness. Again, the labels offered a clue. The bottom four products all contained zero calories per a 1-tablespoon serving. Meanwhile, most of our favorites contained a few, between two and five. Our winner contained the most. But this sweetness isn’t from added sugar; it’s an indication that the wine used to make the vinegar was sweeter than in the other products.

With bright, balanced flavor, Napa Valley Naturals Organic White Wine Vinegar ($4.19 for 12.7 ounces) deserves a place in your pantry. If you can’t find it, the best way to know that you’re getting a good vinegar is to check the label. The acidity percentage will be listed; look for at least 6 percent for the most vibrant flavor. As for the sugar content, the most balanced vinegars we tasted, particularly Napa Valley Naturals, had a few calories per serving, which indicates that it was made with a sweeter wine. That, along with its aromatic and floral flavor, makes our winner ideal for use in everything from vinaigrettes and brine to soups and pan sauces. We’ll keep this versatile vinegar in easy reach.

We evaluated eight nationally available white wine vinegars, selected from sales data gathered by Chicago-based market research firm IRI, in a simple vinaigrette and in giardiniera, a classic Italian pickled vegetable medley where the vinegar is heated. In both applications, tasters evaluated the flavor, sweetness, acidity, and overall appeal of each sample. Results from the two tastings were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference. An independent laboratory analyzed titratable acidity (a measure of how strong an acid tastes). Ingredient information, acidity levels, and calorie amounts were taken from product labels. Calorie amounts are based on a 1-tablespoon serving. All products were purchased at Boston-area supermarkets or online.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*