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Sour Grapes: Making Vinegar At Home

Dec 17, 2010

(Crossposted from cookblog).

What is it that finally pushes us over the edge, and motivates us to try something new? Even when it’s something we’re pretty sure is easy and know is rewarding, it can be a real effort to begin a new venture. I’m speaking culinarily, but it’s true across all the areas of human endeavor. There’s a resistance–a fear even–that keeps us returning to the things we know. I try to overcome it regularly, and this here forum offers some incentive to mix things up and stretch out beyond the comfort zone, but sometimes there’s a long period of time that elapses before things click and I take on a new project. And there’s still more effort required to incorporate the technique into the rhythms of kitchen routine (I’m looking at you, bread-baking) so that the food in question can enter the regular rotation, truly substituting for store-bought alternatives.

In my erratic but still determined progress to outsource less and less of my food production, lately I’ve been dabbling in making vinegar. I first got serious about it when I visited Brother Victor-Antoine in June to profile him for the magazine (profile at the link). His vinegar is revelatory. Seek it out if you live in the area. He sent me home with a jar of mother (mother = a colony of bacteria and soluble cellulose that forms over time and converts alcohol to acetic acid. Acetic acid = vinegar) and it sat in my cabinet until I bought a bottle of wine that had turned to vinegar. At that same time, the biodynamic fruit CSA I had joined started including apple cider in the weekly deliveries. Faced with two half gallons, I could have frozen one, but opted instead to let it ferment. And thus a bad bottle of wine and a good bottle of cider began my zealous experimentation with homemade vinegar.


From left to right: Apple cider, red wine (needs topping up), sumac-maple, blackcurrant, cranberry-strawberry.

I began by adding another bottle of drinkable red wine to the spoiled one in a half-gallon jar, dropping in a glistening loogie of mother for good measure. Once the cider was fully fizzy and noticeably alcoholic, I added mother to it as well. Because it was summer, I covered both jars with a few layers of cheesecloth and secured it with rubber bands so the fruit flies couldn’t get in. It’s important to keep the vinegar-to-be exposed to air, so don’t close the containers.

And then? Then I did nothing. That’s it. The entire process. By Thanksgiving, the red wine was pungent and ripe. I decanted about half of it, and topped the jar up with another bottle of decent, inexpensive wine. I use it in everything. It’s glorious; the basic house vinaigrette for salads is now a thing of ecstasy-inducing wonder. The cider isn’t ready yet, but keep in mind that half of my initial wine jar was already vinegar when I began. The waiting is the hardest part.

The act of decanting and topping up the wine got me inspired, so I took a little trip to a nearby wine store. I bought a bottle of local white and a bottle of New Jersey cranberry wine, and on my way home I pulled over at a spot I like and cut five plump sumac panicles. Once home, phase two of vinegar madness got underway. First, I pulled apart the sumac bobs and put all the fuzzy red drupes in the blender with water and let it fly. Linda wrotethis good post about extracting sumac for anyone interested in trying it as an ingredient. It has tons of vitamin C, and when sweetened a bit makes a pretty interesting local citrus substitute. I like to combine it with maple, since I find that they complement each other famously, and since maple syrup is a local sweetener it makes sense from a foodshed point of view as well. The next day, after infusing overnight, I strained it first through a mesh strainer and then through fine muslin; those tiny hairs make for a cloudy result without filtration. I mixed it with enough maple syrup to bring it to a tolerable tartness, then added the bottle of white wine and enough vodka to bring the whole volume up to about 12% alcohol. In went some mother. I’m hopeful that maple-sumac vinegar will become a unique staple in my pantry.

The cranberry wine went in a smaller jar, along with a bottle of local strawberry wine that someone brought as a gift a while ago. And last, a store nearby has begun to carry blackcurrant juice from Connecticut. It’s not organic, though the farm uses Integrated Pest Management, and from experience I know that currants are a hardy and pest-resistant plant so they probably don’t spray too much. I’ll be looking into it. And it’s from the Northeast, and I think currants should be planted and consumed by everyone. So I bought a half a gallon, and let it ferment like the cider did. My trick, such as it is, is to leave it in the fridge until the plastic bottle begins to bloat from the CO2 that the yeast produces along with alcohol. I always drink a little at this stage, because the gentle effervescence is pleasant. It’s also fun to taste the decline in sugar as it all gets consumed and converted to booze. After it’s fully fermenting, I move it out to the counter, where the increased temperature speeds it up. Then I add mother and wait. See a pattern?

If you have access to the apple cider vinegar “with the mother” that they sell at health food stores, you can use that. Over time, it grows, so you can divide it among more and more jars. If not, buy a bottle of wine, open it, and leave it on the counter for a month or two. When it smells and tastes like vinegar, it is. You can use a splash to inoculate other varieties, if you like, or just keep decanting some and adding more wine to turn. “Vin aigre” means “Sour wine,” after all. Nature does this for you. It’s probably the easiest homemade delicacy there is: easier than pickles, and that’s saying something.


On a busy day, I have saved it - photos & all - for delectable evening reading offline.
Hi Jessica, thank you for reading. There's a link to my blog at the top of the post if you're interested.
Hi Peter I like the idea of making vinegar. Making pickled onions [my favourite with fish & chips] using homemade vinegar would be great. The only problem i have, and i guess that others would have is obtaining the 'mother'. Anyway i found this which seems to solve the problem :- How to Make Vinegar Making vinegar is so easy it can be done by accident. We could even say that most of it is made without our cooperation or awareness. Making good vinegar, consistantly, is another story. That requires a little effort. But the effort pays well. Vinegar can be made from almost anything which contains sugar or starch. It is made from many different things; fruits, grains, roots even wood. It can be made directly from sugar but is best made by first converting the sugar into alcohol and then turning the alcohol into vinegar. The conversion from starch is a little trickier, but the process shares a lot of similarities. There are many ways to make vinegar and many of them are covered in our fun easy to read reference book on the subject. But for now let's stick to the very simplest way possible. To make vinegar the simplest way you need to find yourself; A container with a spout .(e.g. a sun tea jar) The spout is not mandatory but it sure makes things easier. The container should also have a wide mouth to let in air as well as a way to keep out flies. (Air is very important!) You will be visited by vinegar flies! They are my assistants. The container should be glass or stainless steel for best results. Aluminum and iron is definately out. Some plastics can work, some are dangerous because they react with vinegar. So, for now, I would skip plastics. Some fresh fruit juice. (Even the frozen variey will do. But I would stay away from the bottled ones because they add chemicals to keep the juice from turning to vinegar. (See how easy it is to make vinegar.) A starter culture. Notice I said "starter culture". Don't make a big deal about getting a "mother", it will probably ruin otherwise good vinegar. What you need are the bacteria which make vinegar. Check the home brew stores or pick up a bottle of unpasturized, unfiltered vinegar. I have had great success with Braggs Apple cider vinegar. The vinegar in the culture keeps out the other molds and bacteria until the vinegar bacteria have had a chance to take firm control of the juice. A dark place. You could also paint your jar or cover it . The object is to keep out the light. Light will slow the vinegar production or even kill your culture. A warm place. The precise temperature is not so critical but it does make a difference on how fast your vinegar is made. If you feel comfortable at that temperature, most likely the vinegar bacteria will be happy also. OK, we have a vinegar culture, a container to put it in, some food for it and lot's of warm air available to it. Pour about one quart of the starter into the container. Pour about the same amount of juice into the container. Put the mix into a warm dark place. Keep checking it until it is as strong as you like it or it seems to be losing strength. Bottle it in small bottles. Leave it for at least six months before using. (You could use it right away but, this will make it smoother) Once you have got the hang of it, you might want to try making some real special vinegar. And Remember the Vinegar Man loves you. Thankyou for your post. It has given me the incentive to try one more thing i never would have otherwise. Regards Glenn
Glenn and Peter, What great info, thanks. We are planning to homebrew an ESB tomorrow, so maybe we will attempt to make a malt vinegar as well. I'll do a little research and report back. -Johanna
Cool; please do report back and let us know.
Excellent information, thanks. The Bragg's apple cider is the stuff I was referring to. Good luck- I'm glad you're giving it a try.
Does anyone know how to make strong vineger (20% acidity) or buy 20% acidity vineger? I want to use it as a weed killer.
Here in the mountain high desert our soils & water are alkaline. I know vinegar can confer acidity to soils & plants because some of my plants benefitted when i read that a grower of Bonsai trees - artistically miniaturized trees that often start with a conifer - this grower of Bonsai used a touch of vinegar in his watering mix to offset alkaline water, since conifers prefer a more acidic, lower pH. i double-checked the pH preference of my healthy plants & the hanging, flowering Geraniums became even more beautiful with a dash of vinegar in their alkaline waterings.

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