Distilled malt vinegar is less acidic than white vinegar, it’s used more often in cooking (especially sauces and dressings). White vinegar is made by fermenting any natural starch (i.e. sugarcane, oats or grapes) or pure alcohol (ethanol) whereas distilled malt vinegar is produced solely through the distillation of malt vinegar; this can only be made through fermenting malted barley.
At first glance, it can be hard to spot any differences between white vinegar and distilled malt vinegar. However, they’re distinct products made using different techniques. As a result, you can’t always substitute white vinegar for distilled malt vinegar (and vice versa).
White Vinegar vs Distilled Malt Vinegar: Crucial Similarities & Differences
Here are the key similarities and differences between white vinegar and distilled malt vinegar:
- Colour: White vinegar and distilled malt vinegar are almost always clear-coloured (transparent), just like water.
- Packaging: Both vinegars are typically packaged in clear glass bottles or larger plastic bottles and jugs.
- Price: In the UK, the cheapest white vinegar products retail at approximately £0.20/litre. Generally, the larger the volume of vinegar purchased, the bigger the potential saving. Small, table-sized bottles of vinegar are the least cost-effective option; these can retail at over £1.00/litre!
- Viscosity: There’s no discernable difference in viscosity between distilled malt vinegar and white vinegar.
- Acidity: Perhaps the biggest difference between white vinegar and distilled malt vinegar is their acidity. White vinegar acidity ranges between 4% and 10% acetic acid. Distilled malt vinegar is less acidic, averaging 4% to 5%. The UK’s oldest distilled malt vinegar producer, Sarson’s, standardises acidity levels to 5%.
- Name: White vinegar is sometimes referred to as “spirit vinegar”, especially by older generations; spirit refers to ethanol (alcohol).
- Taste: Distilled malt vinegar has a more subdued, rounded taste compared with white vinegar.
- Location in UK Supermarkets and Shops: Distilled malt vinegar can be found in the sauces aisle of most UK supermarkets and some shops. However, white vinegar is rarely stocked in supermarket food aisles. White vinegar is often sold alongside household cleaning agents.
According to Public Health England, products labelled vinegar can contain between 4% and 18% acetic acid. The Food Labelling Regulations 1996 states that products containing only water and acetic acid aren’t legally required to carry a use-by date or ingredients list.
What is Malt Vinegar?
In the UK, malt vinegar is traditionally made with two ingredients: malted barley and water. However, many British fish-and-chip shops, eager to save money wherever possible, use imitation malt vinegar instead.
These cheaper knockoffs are known as “non-brewed condiments”; they’re manufactured to have the colour, consistency and taste of real malt vinegar. However, they’re actually a mixture of water, caramel food colouring and acetic acid.
How is Distilled Malt Vinegar Made? (5 Steps)
The following method (Steps 1-4) is used to produce malt vinegar in the UK. Step 5 (distillation) refines the malt vinegar into distilled malt vinegar, removing its brown-colouration whilst increasing acidity.
Step 1: Malting
Barley crops, grown by farmers across Scotland and England, are harvested from July to August. The stalks are removed as they aren’t needed in the distilled malt vinegar making process.
The grains are then soaked in water, weakening the barley’s tough outer shell. The slightly-open barley is then spread over a large open area; this exposes the barley air, causing them to sprout new stems and leaves; the end result is malt barley!
Step 2: Mashing
The malted barley is added to a vat with hot water and stirred. This process, known as “mashing”, releases sugars trapped within the barley.
Step 3: Fermentation
Yeast is introduced to the mash. The yeast convert sugars into pure alcohol (ethanol). The ideal alcohol level for vinegar production is reached after around 7 days of cold fermentation. Any remaining yeast is removed.
Step 4: Acetification
Healthy bacteria, including Acetobacter aceti, Acetobacter pomorum or Mycoderma aceti, are introduced to transform the fermented alcohol present into acetic acid. This gives malt vinegar its distinctive aroma and powerful taste.
Step 5: Distillation
Distillation is the process of increasing the acetic acid content of malt vinegar, by partially removing water and other malty compounds. The process also removes coloured molecules from the vinegar, leaving a crystal-clear distilled malt vinegar without the malt colour or flavour.
What is White Vinegar Made From?
The cheapest method of white vinegar production is 100% synthetic; pure acetic acid is diluted with water until an acetic acid concentration of between 4% and 10% is reached – it’s that simple!
If you plan on using white vinegar for cleaning only, consider purchasing an artificial white vinegar – these products can be much cheaper.
Traditional white vinegar making techniques are slower and more expensive, but the end result is arguably more flavourful and palatable, if used for cooking. All traditional vinegar recipes require a source of sugars (i.e. grapes, rice, apples, barley) and fresh water.
The sugar-containing plant matter is crushed up, stewed and then left uncovered for an extended period of time. Microscopic yeast spores, already floating around in the air, will land on the sugary mash and begin fermenting the sugars into alcohol.
What is Distilled Malt Vinegar Used For?
Distilled malt vinegar has a considerably stronger taste than (non-distilled) malt vinegar.
You would probably not want to put distilled malt vinegar on chips: it’s very acidic tasting and has an overpowering pungency.
In cooking, distilled malt vinegar is used in sauces, glazes, dips, gravies, dressings and numerous other dishes. As a rule of thumb, distilled malt vinegar is used to impart acidity, but not flavour, into food.
In cleaning, some people use distilled malt vinegar to wipe down hard surfaces. This may help to remove dirt and neutralise foul odours around the home.
White Vinegar in Laundry
In the UK, the minimum permitted acetic acid content in white vinegar is 4%. This is strong enough to remove many marks and stains from clothing.
For cleaning around the home, choose a strong white vinegar with an acetic acid content above 10%.
White vinegar is purported to be a safe, natural cleaning agent that can effectively remove dirt and neutralise pathogens around the home.
Throughout history, various claims have been made regarding white vinegar’s properties on germs: antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, antitumour and other impressive health claims have been attributed to white vinegar.
Unfortunately, this is only partially true. Standard white vinegar, containing around 5% acetic acid, is not effective against many common pathogens, including salmonella. These days, chemical cleaning agents like bleach outperform vinegar-based cleaners in many tests.
Can you use Distilled Malt Vinegar in Laundry?
While you could wash your clothes with distilled malt vinegar, it’s not recommended! Even after a lengthy distillation, distilled malt vinegars may contain traces of tannins; these brown-coloured molecules could irreversibly stain your clothes.
Distilled malt vinegars are also less acidic; they’re fairly ineffective as cleaning agents.
Finally, distilled malt vinegars can have a noticeable sharp, tangy smell. White vinegars, produced for washing clothes and use in washing machines, do not have a noticeable odour.
Unless you want to smell like the inside of a fish and chip shop, stick to adding white vinegar to laundry instead of distilled malt vinegar!