With summer, canning season kicks into high gear. I’ve been canning for years and always look forward to canning batches of pickles, chutney, and relish.
But this summer there are new rumblings on Facebook about canning safety, and it all has to do with the appearance of cheap white vinegar on store shelves. What’s all the fuss about? If you can or know someone who does, you need to be in the loop.
Acidity Levels Matter for Safe Home Canning
White vinegar is a major ingredient in many popular canning recipes. For safe home canning, vinegar needs to be 5 percent acidity. In the last year or so, bottles and jugs of vinegar with 4 percent acidity have begun showing up on shelves more frequently. And that cheap white vinegar is not okay to use in canning.
Vinegar plays a big role in a lot of water bath canning recipes. Its acidity helps keep bacteria at bay. Foods that are low in sugar and/or acid (such as tomatoes in salsa and cucumbers in pickles) need added acid in the form of vinegar or bottled lemon juice. Why? Because these bottled products have verifiable levels of acid, allowing home canners to adhere to long-established best practices that exist for your own well-being. This is why you can’t just swap ingredients or reduce their amounts in home canning without fully understanding the roles they play in food preservation. When I teach a canning class, I make sure people learn this above anything else.
What’s Up With This 4% Acidity Vinegar?
Home canners are often very active on Facebook, and that’s where reports of the questionable vinegar first began. They warn canners to check the label before they buy.
Inflation has hit the so-called “center store” aisles of packaged goods particularly hard. One way food producers combat this is to make packages a little bit smaller. But in the case of bargain vinegars, they simply dilute them with more water. These are not the brand name (or even store brand) white vinegars. The 4 percenters tend to be the cheapest ones on the shelf. I stopped at my nearest grocery and found one on the lowest shelf right off the bat. It’s tempting to seek the budget option on ingredients like this where it seems like it doesn’t matter, but sadly in this case it does.
How to Tell a Vinegar’s Acidity Level
Fortunately, the acidity level of any common commercial vinegar is right there on the label. It’s usually on the front of the bottle and super easy to find. Just check the label to verify that it’s 5 percent acidity before you can.
What exactly is cheapo 4 percent white vinegar good for? Maybe in salad dressings with a lot of sugar or other ingredients, such as three bean salad. I use white vinegar mostly for cleaning, and there’s a special cleaning vinegar just for that purpose that’s stronger, with a 6 percent acidity level.