The Wonderful World of Vinegar: History, Folklore, and Medicinal Uses

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Cider vinegar is a useful tonic for many ails including cold, ‘flu, sore throat, and stuffy head. It is also good for flushing impurities from the kidneys, bladder, and liver.

Call me a sourpuss, if you will, but I love vinegar and can’t imagine a day going by without calling upon one type or another for cooking, curing, or cleaning purposes. Vinegar gets its name from the Latin vinum acetum, or “wine turned sour”, and is one of the oldest condiments in the world. It is believed to have been discovered by accident – wine was exposed to air and voila, “sour wine”. Too tart to drink, too precious to throw away, creative experimentation proved that soured wine has fascinating properties – one of them being the ‘power to pickle’!

Ancient Egyptians and Chinese reputedly used vinegar thousands of years before Christ, and its use is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Traces of vinegar were discovered in an Egyptian vessel dating back 10,000 years. Babylonians used it for cleaning and preserving food, and Roman legionnaires drank vinegar before battle – believing it gave them strength and courage. After the fighting was over, vinegar was applied as a disinfectant to cleanse wounds inflicted by swords.

Apple Cider Vinegar

During my childhood, when the need arose for healing tonics and homegrown remedies, my grandmother taught me to reach for a jug of pure apple cider vinegar. If you don’t make your own apple cider vinegar, it’s easy to find at your local health food store – the kind made from local, fermented, organically grown apples is best.

Cider vinegar is described in Grandma’s old doctoring journals as being a useful tonic for many ails including cold, ‘flu, sore throat, and stuffy head. It is also good for flushing impurities from the kidneys, bladder, and liver.

Studies have indicated that unpasteurized apple cider vinegar helps relieve arthritic pain when taken orally or applied as a hot compress. And wrapping a twisted ankle or sprain with a cloth that’s been soaked in cider vinegar can reduce swelling.

Apple cider vinegar is also a useful remedy for insomnia, constipation, nervousness, muscle cramps, and more. Grandma’s scribblers testify that it can be used to expel intestinal worms when given internally, or to get rid of head lice by dissolving nests with a cider vinegar hair rinse.

(Editor’s note: According to naturopathic doctors Paul and Patricia Bragg, authors of Apple Cider Vinegar: Miracle Health System, potassium-rich cider vinegar is a time-tested natural remedy used by their family for treating arthritis, chronic fatigue, and constipation. See resource list at end.)

Balsamic, Wine, and Mirin Vinegars

Over the years, I have become a connoisseur of more exotic types of vinegar for dressing up meals. In my view, any cook can go from being good to gourmet simply by keeping an aromatic bottle or two of specialty vinegars close at hand. Unlike my rural grandmother, I have easy access to markets that offer vinegars from around the world. One of my favourite is balsamic vinegar from Italy.

TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC – is made from white Trebbiano grapes and aged (up to 100 years) in a succession of barrels made out of different woods, each instilling a particular flavour and aroma to the vinegar, thus its magical taste and pricier tag.

MALT VINEGAR – with its English roots, is fermented out of barley and grain mash and flavoured from casks of beech and birch. When seeking the best quality, look for an organic label.

CHAMPAGNE AND WHITE VINEGARS – vary in quality according to the type of wines from which they’re made. The best wine vinegars are made the slow, old-fashioned way in oak barrels with plenty of time to mature naturally. Reds and sherry vinegars are aged longer than whites. When purchasing, look for those derived from organic wines.

MIRIN – Some of the most interesting vinegars are those with Oriental origins made from glutinous rice, such as the award-winning, double-fermented and twice distilled, organic Mirin – a thick, golden sweet vinegar that’s said to be one of the purest in the world and can actually be sipped like saké.

(Editor’s note: In TCM herbal therapy, fermented rice vinegars are used to treat conditions similar to those addressed by apple cider vinegar.)

WHITE VINEGAR – Due to its high acidity levels, white vinegar is best used only for housecleaning purposes.

When shopping for vinegar, use the same guidelines as for fine wine. Good organic vinegar should have a sharp, clean taste and pleasant bouquet. It should never be cloudy, smell like alcohol, or leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Like wine, it must be kept tightly corked in a cool place. Most vinegars today are 5% acetic acid, except balsamic, which ideally is 6%.

Vinegar Medicine

Studies have indicated that unpasteurized, organic, apple cider vinegar is a powerful detoxifying and purifying agent that provides the body with a range of minerals including potassium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, calcium, chlorine, sulfur and iron, as well as a number of essential vitamins and beta-carotene.

This slow-fermented elixir is reputed to help prevent high blood pressure by thinning the blood (do not use if you’re taking blood thinning medication); it also helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels as well as regulating metabolism (thus is beneficial in achieving and maintaining weight loss).

In the Kitchen

OLD WORLD WILTS – Grandma always packed a ‘wilt’ in her picnic basket because she claimed that beneficial enzymes in cider vinegar could destroy harmful bacteria. So if by chance anything got tainted in the sun, the wilt would ward off illness. I like wilts because they are refreshingly good, versatile, and easy to make. Just shred lettuce, cabbage, dandelion leaves, spinach, cucumber, or a mix of greens, and put in earthen or glass bowl. Bring one part cider vinegar to two parts water to a boil, then remove from heat and add a glob of honey. Pour over greens and let steep until cold. Drain before serving.

LIGHT, BRIGHT SALADS – Cut down or eliminate oil by simply tossing greens with a shake of store-bought or homemade herbal vinegar. Making your own is as easy as pairing a herb with a vinegar and finding a neat little bottle with a tight fitting cork. (Recipes follow.)

GUILT-FREE DESSERTS – In Italy it is common practice to dip fresh strawberries into a little bowl of balsamic vinegar before eating. This is truly a must-try treat. Unlike traditional chocolate or caramel dunks, balsamic vinegar actually draws out and enhances flavour rather than masking it. Try sticking other fruits like banana slices, apple wedges, or peach or pear slices on toothpicks and dipping in balsamic for exciting variety.

THIRST QUENCHER – Stir a tablespoon of apple cider or fruit vinegar (see recipe below) into iced water for a tantalizing thirst quencher (said to regulate body temperature and clear up a bad complexion).

DIVA DIP – Cider, balsamic, or herbal vinegars poured into the dip bowl make a delightfully light substitute for sour cream, mayonnaise, and other fatty dips. Dunk veggies in the dip to your heart’s content.

GETTING THE MOST OUT OF SOUP STOCKS – Adding a squirt of white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar – about two tablespoons per pound of bones – to a stock pot filled with meat helps to leach valuable calcium from the bones. There will be no sour taste in this calcium-rich broth.

POTASSIUM-RICH TEA – If your stamina is weak, you may need more potassium in your diet. One teaspoonful of cider vinegar per cup of herbal tea is a good remedy for restoring stamina. A dash in place of lemon perks up tea.

SALT SUBSTITUTE – Fill a small-holed salt shaker with cider, malt, or herbal vinegar and use in place of salt on raw onions, tomatoes, poached eggs, steamed vegetables, pasta, or anything else that normally draws you to the shaker. When not in use, keep shaker tightly capped in the refrigerator.

Making Your Own

HERB VINEGAR: Gather a few sprigs of fresh garden herbs; the more you use the stronger it will be. Try fresh basil, dill, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, mint, chives, or whatever is handy in your herb patch. Wash the herbs, pat dry, and place in sterilized bottle. Fill the bottle with apple cider, malt, or wine vinegar or blend of vinegars you desire. Let steep for two weeks, then it’s ready to use, either strained or as is. Peeled garlic cloves, shallots, peppercorns, chilis, juniper berries, or other spices and seasonings can be added.

FRUIT VINEGAR: Use raspberry, cranberry, blueberry, or choice of fruit in place of herbs. Create unique flavours by adding orange peel, lemon zest, pomegranate seeds, nutmeg pod, cinnamon stick or other sweet things to the bottle. For the best in fruit-infused vinegar, use white wine or champagne vinegar.

ARTHRITIS REMEDY: Upon arising in the morning, make up an apple cider vinegar cocktail as follows: Stir, shake, or blend 6 oz. distilled water or spring water with 1 to 2 tsp unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, and 1 to 2 tsp honey. Follow this by eating an organic apple. Use 1 tsp vinegar with your daily garden salad, and remember: 1 to 2 apples a day keeps the doctor away.

In the Medicine Cupboard

Cold Prevention Medicine – Peel a knuckle of ginger root and put into pint jar. Add peeled cloves of one head of garlic and two small chili peppers. Cover with cider vinegar that’s been brought to a near boil. Cap tightly and store in fridge. Grandmother’s suggested dosage: Take one teaspoonful in half cup of water when you feel a cold coming on. Keeps indefinitely in the fridge.

Cold and ‘Flu Tonic – Mix 2 tsp cider vinegar into 1 cup of boiling water and sweeten with honey to taste. When cool, sip slowly. Good for relieving cough and breaking up phlegm. For congestion, serve this mixture hot and inhale the steam.

Heartburn Remedy – One teaspoonful of cider vinegar mixed into a glass of water, taken with a spicy meal, makes a reliable acid neutralizer – warding off heartburn.

Nosebleed Remedy – Soak a sterile cloth in white distilled vinegar diluted with equal parts water and apply to stop bleeding. According to Grandma’s old notes, the acid in the vinegar seals the broken vessel.

Headache Remedy – Bring a mixture of 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 cup water to a boil. Add a generous handful of fresh, or several spoonfuls of dried, mint leaves to the pot, turn off heat, and steep until infused (half hour or so). Cover head with a towel, hold over steaming liquid, and inhale fumes. Good treatment for tension or sinus headache.

Itchy Skin Relief – Run a cool tub full of water and add 2 cups of apple cider vinegar. Then get in and have a soak. This is good for soothing heat rash, hives, mosquito bites, and swimmers itch. (Editor’s note: Or if you’re in a hurry, just wet a cloth in cold water, ring it out, then pour some apple cider vinegar on the cloth. Squeeze it out again and use it to wipe your face, arms, or any other body parts that are itchy and irritated. The astringent action of the vinegar is soothing and anti-inflammatory.)

Sunburn Remedy – Pat affected skin with a mixture of cider vinegar and cold water to cool and relieve pain. This helps prevent blistering and peeling.

Foot Odour Remedy – Put about a pint of distilled white or cider vinegar into a basin of warm water and soak feet. This deodorizes and softens calluses at the same time. Rinsing socks in this solution after washing acts like a built-in odour eater.

Itchy Scalp Remedy – Add 2 tablespoons distilled white, rice, or cider vinegar to a quart of warm water and use as final hair rinse after shampooing. This mixture dissolves soap residue that causes dry, flaking scalp. Rosemary vinegar adds fragrance and shine to hair.

From the Editor…

A Note About Acidity

The human body’s ideal pH is slightly alkaline – 7.30 to 7.45. If the body becomes too acidic, symptoms can arise such as gas, constipation, bloating, acne, heartburn, acid reflux, indigestion, mild headaches, gastritis, infections, candida, and frequent ‘flus. Advanced symptoms of over-acidity can include Crohn’s disease and even cancer.

If a person’s diet is largely composed of acid-forming foods such as meat, shellfish, cheese, pastries, greasy take-out meals, chocolate, coffee, wine, and beer (all acid-forming), then their body is likely overly acidic.

The body needs an alkaline pH to maintain clean blood, good enzyme reserves, and healthy immune function. The general recommendation to maintain a healthy pH is: Eat 80% alkaline-forming foods and 20% acid-forming foods.

The terms ‘acid-forming’ and ‘alkaline-forming’ foods refer to how much acid the stomach has to produce in order to digest the food. An orange, even though it is acidic outside the body, is considered alkaline-forming inside the body – when eaten, the stomach has to produce almost no acid. Apple cider vinegar is clearly acidic when sitting on your counter, but inside the stomach it becomes ‘alkaline-forming’ because the stomach has to produce almost no acid to digest it. Conversely, something like bread requires a lot of acid to digest, so it is considered to be ‘acid-forming’.

In regards to apple cider vinegar, it must be raw (unpasteurized) in order to alkalinize the body and have a beneficial effect. In fact, raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) is the only vinegar that is alkaline-forming to the body. All other vinegars (white, balsamic, red wine, etc.) are acid-forming, although mirin and fermented balsamic are the least acid-forming, and white vinegar is the most acid-forming. For a healthy, balanced pH, raw apple cider vinegar is one of the best things to add to your diet.

Spring Cleaning With White Vinegar

by Linda Gabris

Distilled white vinegar is not fit for human consumption because harsh chemicals and solvents are used during distillation to make the vinegar clear. Sometimes called “dead” vinegar due to intense heat involved in the distillation process, the “life-giving” mother (present in raw vinegar) is destroyed along with beneficial enzymes, minerals, and other useful nutrients. However, distilled white vinegar is environmentally friendly and easy on the budget, making it an excellent alternative to chemical cleaning solutions for ridding germs and unpleasant odours around the house.

When I was kid, inexpensive distilled white vinegar was one of the handiest staples in my grandmother’s pantry. She depended upon it for nursing boils, cold sores, skin rashes, bug bites, nosebleed, and more, as well as for housecleaning. Here’s how it is best used for spring cleaning:

Sparkling Glass – Add distilled white vinegar to water when washing windows and glass decorations. Cuts grease and grime and deters buildup. A quarter cup added to rinse water leaves dishes squeaky clean.

Coffee Pots – Make a mixture of half distilled white vinegar, half water. Run it through pot to remove lime and calcium deposits. Use in tea kettle, too.

Drains – Empty 1/2 cup baking soda into drain. Add 1 cup of white distilled vinegar. Let the carbon dioxide fizzle until it’s worn out. Rinse with boiling water. Gets rid of greasy odour and buildup.

Rid Smoke, Musky and Pet Wet Odours – To remove smoke or musky odours from clothes or blankets, add 2 cups white distilled vinegar to the final rinse water. Also rids mothball odour. To remove pet wet from carpets — sponge with equal parts white distilled vinegar and water.

Wash Machine – To remove soap residue and scrum from wash machine, let fill with hot water, add a quart of white distilled vinegar and let stand until soap and scum are dissolved. Then run the cycle through.

Ants – Grandma always said that an ant would never tread in the path of vinegar. Detour them with full strength white distilled vinegar.

Produce Wash – Mix three parts distilled white vinegar to 1 part water in a spray bottle. Use to blast away germs from produce. After spraying, rinse well under cold running water. Store leftover spray, tightly capped, in fridge.

Clean and Disinfect Chopping Blocks – To remove meat, onions, garlic, fish and other odours rub with baking soda then sprinkle with white distilled vinegar. Let stand until fizzling stops, then rinse with scalding water and air dry.

View the full printable recipe


  • 2 garlic cloves (chopped)
  • 1 tsp dried basil leaves
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp raw organic honey
  • dash cumin powder
  • dash cayenne pepper
  • pinch of Himalayan salt


1) Apple Cider Vinegar: Miracle Health System by Paul and Patricia Bragg; Health Science; Santa Barbara, CA. Book available in local health food stores.

2) A favourite local brand of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar is made by Filsinger’s in Ayton, Ontario. Find it in your local health food store, visit:, or call (519) 665-7763.


• Woodford Files: On the Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar for Clearing Arthritis:


Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.

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