My most recent food adventures, or meditations rather, have been months in the making. Life tends to be crazy at the best of times and often when I am not feeling creative I turn to the tried and true meals, most of which I have already shared with you.
But the one new thing I keep going back to…that I play with and check on and wonder at…is one of the oldest culinary staples of mankind…vinegar.
I have known forever that vinegar can be rather foul. Grocery store varieties are horribly disappointing. Expensive ones can be awful, too, which is even more disappointing. Yet somewhere in my mind I knew that this was something that could be made at home. I just never took the time to understand the process. Vinegar was just something you buy at the store…like vanilla. And I suppose it was my fascination with homemade vanilla that got me thinking I should just jump in to the world of vinegar. Because, if you have devoted a whole shelf to bottles of vodka with vanilla beans steeping away inside, then why not have a few vats of wine doing their thing also?
So, full disclosure, I am a rank amateur. If you proceed, you are in charge of figuring out what is safe and not, and you cannot get irritated with me if your concoction doesn’t turn out. But there is really nothing more simple than making vinegar, because essentially it will happen all by itself.
You can buy kits and you can search online for mothers (see below for an explanation of “mother”) and you can buy expensive crocks with bottom spouts. You can. Or, you can just get a half gallon ball jar and some cheese cloth and a rubber band and go to town as I did. To show for it, I now have two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar that are better than anything I ever bought at any store. I also have a giant jar of Prosecco working in an attempt to become Champagne vinegar, but it is looking grim. Although it might also just be a slow bloomer. And I have a white stewing away that I think will take. It is just one big biology experiment. So if you are in the mood to play, you might as well jump in with me.
Vinegar is the result of the conversion of alcohol. A trusty little microorganism called Acetobacter aceti goes to work on the alcohol and the resulting product is vinegar. It is very much a living process. This will apparently happen all by itself if wine is exposed to oxygen, pulling things out of the air that get to work on the wine. But the easiest way to get the process started is with a “mother” or a blob, or culture, of acetobacter. Again, you can order a jar of the stuff. But, if you are like me, you might have an old bottle of Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar in your pantry. I use it for many things, but most notably I put a splash of it in apple pie filling. Bragg’s is unpasteurized and the bottle clearly states that it contains “the mother.” This just means they haven’t boiled it to death to kill the beneficial bacteria. If you look at a bottle of unpasteurized vinegar you will see residue or “stuff” suspended in the vinegar or settled at the bottom. If it has been in your pantry long enough there will be a gelatinous blob. I have probably thrown this away in the past, now it is gold to me. If you have a bottle but no blob, you can unscrew the lid a bit which will let oxygen in and a blob will likely grow in there, speeding up the process a bit. I started with a good blobby old bottle and strained out most of the vinegar from the blob and put the blob in the jar to start my vinegar. I then put the vinegar back in the original bottle to start forming a new blob. Check your pantry.
Once you have this blob, you have a mother. Technically, you have a mother either way and can just start with unpasteurized vinegar which contains enough mother for a kick start, but the blob makes me feel like I’m on my way, because I can see it.
Many wines have very high alcohol content and may be too stiff to get the process going. I take wine of 14% acidity and add water in an equal portion to get started. You should feel free to play with this number. If you have a wine of a lower alcohol content, you don’t need to use as much water. You could try not adding water or adding a lot less water. My limited understanding is that the higher the alcohol content, the slower the process. But I suspect it all still turns out since plenty of people have been heard to talk about bottles of undiluted wine turning to vinegar. The process happens.
But this is the basic drill.
Get a half gallon glass jar. Pour equal amounts of wine and water into the jar. Add the mother. Place a few layers of cheese cloth over the mouth of the jar and secure it with a rubber band. I use the metal ring on them too, but some people report that you do not want metal anywhere near the process. I am careful to ensure that there is no actual contact and have not had an issue. But I suppose a rubber band is the safer avenue. Take a paper bag and write the specifics on the outside. The date. The kind of wine. Where you obtained the mother. Then place the jar inside the bag to protect the liquid from the light. Place your jar in the pantry, away from too many other foods. Then leave it. This should be a place where the temperature is from 60 to 80 degrees. But again, the process will happen one way or the other, so no need to worry too much about that.
You can peek in a few weeks and you should notice the overt scent of vinegar. You can carefully peer into the jar and see if anything is going on. You will likely notice a layer of cellulose has formed at the top. This is the mother and it is happily eating away at the alcohol. If you jostle the jar the mother can sink. Then a new layer will form on top. I did so much jostling and peering on my first batch that I had about 7 layers of mother in the bottom of the jar by the time it was finished.
|How to Make Homemade Vinegar|| |
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar with the Mother (preferably a blob)
- Place the wine and water into a half gallon glass jar or crock.
- Strain the apple cider vinegar so that you have as much of the mother as possible, reserving excess vinegar for other uses. Add the vinegar and mother to the wine and water.
- Place several layers of cheesecloth over the jar opening and secure it with a rubber band, string, or the metal jar ring. Place the jar in a paper bag on which you have noted the start date.
- Place the jar in the pantry or other warm location where it can sit undisturbed.
- Over the next few weeks, you can feed the vinegar with extra wine, or simply let it continue to sit undisturbed, checking occasionally for the scent of vinegar and that a mother is forming.
- Allow the vinegar to sit for a minimum of 8 weeks (see post on timing) and then test the vinegar to see if it has fully converted.
- Once you are pleased with the flavor of the vinegar, strain the vinegar into a bottle and cap the bottle. Reserve the mother for another batch or give some of it away to a friend. Place the bottle of vinegar in the pantry again to continue aging until you are satisfied with the results. I recommend another 4 weeks.
There is a lot of dialogue online about how long this process will take, and as I have noted, I have had varying degrees of speed in the conversion depending on the wine. Two months has been typical for the reds for me. How can you know? You can grab a plastic straw and put it into the liquid at the edge (trying not to submerge your mother) and then put your finger on the top of the straw which will let you obtain a sample. Just avoid metal…therefore, no metal spoon, though a plastic spoon would be fine.
Taste it. Does it taste like wine or like vinegar? If it tastes too much of alcohol and isn’t particularly acidic, put it back in the pantry for a few more weeks. If it is wonderfully acidic (When’s the last time you took a straight shot of vinegar?) you can decant the vinegar into a container and use it. But the better course is to bottle it, reserving the mother for the next batch, and then let it age in the bottle for at least another month. I couldn’t go longer because I really was anxious to use it. But apparently the aging makes a huge difference, and I can attest that even the extra month improved the flavor.
People who know far more than I have said that four months is the absolute minimum, and people who I suspect know even less than I have said that if it smells like vinegar it is done. I sort of split the difference as long as it tastes right.
You can pasteurize the vinegar, or you can put it straight into bottles as I did. The sealed bottle will keep the oxygenation and conversion process from proceeding to a large degree, though as with the Bragg’s, you may end up with a little blob on top. It is harmless. I like the idea of this living food. But there may be safety issues that need to be addressed. You are on your own. But, I’m still here, so take that as a good sign. I have read that unpasteurized vinegar should be kept in the refrigerator, but as of yet I have kept mine at room temperature.
The mother can be put into the next batch, shared, or preserved in the refrigerator in a sealed jar. If you get a good mother going, share it. That is half the fun. But once you have a “red mother” use it for reds, as the color becomes a factor as well as the flavors. If you decide to try a white later, I recommend starting a new mother for whites. Again, you can order mother of vinegar online that will be specific to white or red, saving this step if you choose.
I have chosen to keep my wine bottles and clean them out and hold onto them until the vinegar is ready, then decant the vinegar back into the wine bottle and seal it with the cork. I like knowing the wine that made the vinegar. There is something charming about knowing where it came from and who grew the grapes and lovingly created the wine.
Many “feed” their vinegar adding an unfinished glass of this or that to the jar as they go, keeping a perpetual vinegar supply going. This works particularly well if you have a crock with a spigot on the bottom (again, avoid metal fittings). I like this idea. It is like composting. You are creating something great with something that would otherwise go to waste. But my friends don’t leave wine in the glass, and I don’t drink, so this method is one I’ll leave to you if you should choose to adopt it.
Given my proclivities to make products with wine and vodka, I’m always a little bit of an oddity at the liquor store. I have to find a knowledgeable sales person and then the conversation goes like this:
“OK, I need a good bottle of wine. Fruity, and a little sweet but not cloying. Something delicious but perhaps with a sweeter profile, though not like a dessert wine.” I say.
“Well, tell me what wines you enjoy. Give me an example.” says the salesperson.
“I don’t know. And I don’t really drink. I’m making vinegar.” I respond.
“On purpose? With good wine? Um, nobody has ever asked me to pick out a wine to ruin.” says the salesperson.
“Yes, well, just tell me what you would buy if you wanted a fruity wine that was a little sweet but not cloying with a nice profile but isn’t a dessert wine because I need something that tastes good that the bacteria will also find enjoyable.” I continue.
“Hunh…well…let’s go over here and look at a nice Cab Sav.”
“Keep it under $20 bucks will you? I am not sure if this is going to work.”
Then they show me a great wine and I decide whether the label is pretty enough because I am teetotaler and apparently also shallow.
This is also how I happened upon Dripping Springs Vodka for my vanilla projects by the way. I had to explain to the salesperson that I needed a good clean and crisp vodka with no major undertones and preferably something American or Texan.
“Well, what have you liked in the past?” he kindly probed.
“Well, I used to steal Stoli out of my parents liquor cabinet and that was really good with a Sonic cherry Sprite. I preferred Tanqueray for a nice Gin and Sonic, really. I’m sure there are more interesting options now…but I’m not going to drink it, I’m going to bake with it.”
“Hunh…well…OK, sounds interesting. Let’s go over here and I’ll show you some great Texas vodkas, and the Dripping Springs has won awards for its purity so maybe you should start there.”
“Awesome…ooh, cute label too.”
I’m sure on some level they think I’m just in denial and that I’ll be in the carpool line with a Vodka Sonic in an hour or two. But never mind that…I do spend an awful lot of money at the hootch getting’ store for a non-drinker. I’m an odd customer.
So, join me in this experiment. You could really get advanced and buy pH strips and test the acidity and make sure I’m not violating any major food safety laws…or you can just throw some wine in a jar and watch what happens. If you are going to do anything exotic like make pickles with your vinegar, then you will actually have to deal with the pH issue for legitimate safety reasons, but I am personally only at the salad dressing stage. Either way, report back and let me know how your kitchen biology is going.
I hate to even mention it, but people have noted in other articles about this experiment attracting vinegar flies. But I haven’t run into that so I don’t have much to add, other than my kids think the pantry smells nasty now. But I love the smell…it smells like victory.
I learned most of what I know about vinegar online, perusing numerous articles and sources. If you would like to read more, consider the following: How to Make Homemade Vinegar in Mother Earth News, How to Make Homemade Vinegar in About Education, The Virtue of Homemade Vinegar in Food & Wine, Homemade Red Wine Vinegar on Epicurious, Ask Dr. Vinny on Wine Spectator. And for locals in particular, here is a great interview with FT33’s Matt McCallister by Entree Dallas about his vinegar making projects.
And, something you should check out anyway, is Alton Brown’s podcast. This edition features Jonathon Sawyer of Greenhouse Tavern discussing his fermentation proclivities and trials. Many thanks to Daniel Sorrels for pointing this jewel of a podcast out to me.
If you have been down this road, please feel free to comment with your vinegar making successes, failures or stories. We can all benefit from sharing our experiences with this project.