Adventures in Vinegar: The Universal Fix-It Foodstuff

Vinegar, the ultimate do-gooder

Remember that ridiculous, adorable movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? The family patriarch, Gus Portokalos, was convinced he had found the end-all, be-all, cure-all product for any ailment. His solution for nearly everything? “Put some Windex.”

Well, I might be arriving rather late to the party on this one, but not a week goes by that I don’t hear of yet another household, garden, or health-related problem that isn’t solved with vinegar. Got bad breath? A moldy shower? Stained china? A skunky puppy? Weeds? Put some vinegar.

This summer I conducted my very first vinegar experiment. With gardening season well underway, I needed to find a guilt-free weed killer to use on sidewalks and gravel paths. After some online research, I tried spraying household white vinegar right onto the weeds—recommended on especially hot days. The weeds that got doused did indeed fry up and dry up! I’ve since heard that mixing vinegar with dish soap (which helps it stick) and epsom salt might be even more effective. If you can get your hands on the 6 percent acidity version (most white vinegar is 5 percent), even better.

A Gazillion Practical Uses

This one is also particularly exciting: I’ve had road salt residue on the black carpet of my car since the hideous winter of 2013. (Don’t judge me.) I just learned that a solution of equal parts water and white vinegar—sponged onto the carpet and blotted back up—should do the trick! Thank you!

Another cold-weather tip: You can keep frost from forming on your car windows by spraying the outside of the glass with a solution of 3 parts white vinegar to 1 part water. Reapply every few weeks. (If you are trying to ward off thick ice or snow, sorry, can’t help ya.)

You probably already know that vinegar is a great cleaning solution for a gazillion different surfaces in your home. Truly, the list is endless, but here are a couple fancy favorites:

• Wipe your wooden cutting boards or butcher block countertop with full-strength white vinegar after use. The acetic acid in vinegar is an awesome disinfectant, effective against E. coli, salmonella, and staphylococcus.

• If your coffee is tasting blech, maybe your coffeemaker needs cleaning. Mix 2 cups white vinegar with 1 cup water, and pour the solution into the water chamber. With a filter in place, run it through a full brew cycle, followed by two more cycles using just water. Brew your beans and enjoy!

• To get your thermos or water bottle clean, fill it with warm water and 1/4 cup white vinegar. If you see any residue, add some uncooked rice as an abrasive. Close and shake! Rinse and air dry!

• For all you luckies with dishwashers, you can keep your glassware gleaming by adding 1/4 cup vinegar to your dishwasher’s rinse cycle.

• Oops! Do you have a young artist in your home that occasionally illustrates on your tables or walls? Well, if the artist’s medium of choice is a ballpoint pen, no need to throw a fit. Dab the doodles with some white vinegar on a cloth.

• Here’s a fun one. To get the mineral buildup off of your shower head, fill a small plastic bag half full with vinegar and tape it over the fixture. Let it sit for about an hour, remove the bag. No more water squirting sideways into your eyeball!

• I love shopping at Goodwill, but I don’t like to think about where those new-to-me clothes were living before I met them. Pouring one cup of white vinegar into the wash cycle before I wear them for the first time shall ease my mind henceforth.

Now that your entire house is sparkling, let’s talk about some other creative uses. Got a problem with fruit flies? Fill a little bowl with organic apple cider vinegar. Cover with saran wrap, poke some holes in the top, and set next to your bananas. Bye bye winged pests!

How about some vinegar first aid? Ice-cold vinegar can be applied to a fresh burn to prevent blistering. Relieves sunburns, too. Word on the street is that taking a few drops of vinegar in water can also have a cooling effect on the emotions, helping a body feel more grounded.

And apparently apple cider vinegar and honey makes some kind of magic elixir. According to, you can use it to treat apathy, obesity, hay fever, asthma, rashes, food poisoning, heartburn, sore throat, bad eyesight, dandruff, brittle nails, and bad breath. (Experiment at your own risk!)

I did discover some research-supported claims that vinegar can help fight osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease. It also helps the body absorb crucial nutrients from our fruits and veggies. Hmmm. Using it in our diet makes more practical sense than I realized.

Cooking with Vinegar

Which brings us to cooking. After all, this is the food issue. Well, I have a food issue, and its name is vinegar.

I will now admit to you that the smell of vinegar makes me gag. Squirting it on weeds is one thing—at least I’m in a well-ventilated area and I can keep it at arm’s length away from my nostrils—but using it on my food gives me great pause. I have avoided cooking with it for decades because it seems that every time I use it in a recipe, the dish is ruined. Pasta salads down the drain. Mango black-bean salsa inedible.

Yes, I admit, on an artist’s budget I was buying the cheap stuff. I do not recommend this strategy. Go for the gold! The dollars you spend on decent vinegar will be the dollars you save by not having to throw your meal in the garbage. Winning!

Rose Ann Witherspoon, owner of the At Home Store in Fairfield, confirmed my “you-get-what-you-pay-for” theory, and helped me appreciate why the cost can be high for especially good vinegar.

“Take balsamic vinegar, for instance. A true Italian traditional balsamic takes, at minimum, 12 years to make,” she explains. It’s produced from mixtures of white and black grapes using a “batteria” of (at least) five wooden casks of various sizes. Upheld by family tradition and the strictest of standards, the process is a painstaking one.

By contrast, quality is a crapshoot for “commercial” balsamic vinegars, because no regulations govern their production. Next time, I will look for “balsamico tradizionale” on the label.

“Also, organic is best,” Rosie says, “because of how concentrated it is.” So concentrated that she only puts “a drop” of balsamic into her lentil soup to help enliven the flavors. She gave me a few other tips. “For bean salad or potato salad you want something bright, sharp, or tart. But for a salad made with bitter greens, say, dandelion greens or radicchio, try something sweeter!”

Rosie poured a drop of one of her new favorites into the “well” on the back of my palm—the award-winning Ritrovo Organic Apple Balsamic Vinegar. I cautiously licked it off. Very sweet! Quite strong! But not disgusting!

I told her about my cooking-with-vinegar phobias. She smiled and said, “There is an old proverb printed in the back of one of my favorite cookbooks, Tante Heidi’s Swiss Kitchen. ‘Take vinegar like a miser, oil like a spendthrift, season like a sage, and mix like a madman.'”

You heard it from the master: be stingy with vinegar in your cooking. But apparently you can be liberal with it everywhere else.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!