Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sour Wine - Vinegar - Weekly Email


As of last Sunday, spring is officially here. And although we are dealing with our usual morning overcast, it is neither too hot, nor too cold - great for a nice walk (fantastic wildflowers right now) or working outside. And it is a good thing too, since it it time to plant those tomatoes! Don't forget to plant some extra for canning next August.

I was so busy planting last week (among other things) that I couldn't get to the weekly email. Sorry.

A quick announcement:

We do have some local food preservation classes scheduled in April. Not by yours truly, but local chefs and artisans.

Certified Master Food Preserver trainee Kevin West and Valerie Gordon of Valerie's Confections will be holding a class on sweet and piquant preserving (jams and pickling):

The sustainable supperclub Chicks with Knives will also be holding a pickling class:

Now, when I think spring, I think fresh spring greens. When I think fresh spring greens, I think salad. The thought of salad leads to thoughts of vinaigrette. Vinaigrette --> vinegar. Time to refresh my vinegar stocks!

Making your own vinegar couldn't be easier or result in higher quality than you can get in the average store.

Most store bought vinegar is made using a device similar to a "Frings Acetator." Through precise control of temperature, oxygenation, and agitation, these stainless steel tower-like devices convert alchohol to vinegar (acetic acid) in about 36 to 48 hours. That's fast ... too fast for any flavor (other than acetic acid) to be developed.

Of course, lack of flavor can be solved. Next time you're in a one of the big chain supermarkets, look at the apple cider vinegar. Look closely. Chances are most, or at least half, of the "Apple Cider" vinegar on the shelves is actually "Apple Cider FLAVORED Distilled" vinegar. You have to look close, though.

Real vinegar doesn't suit our industrialized food culture because it takes a couple of months to make or more. During those weeks, flavor has an opportunity to develop, which probably doesn't suit our industrialized food culture either. Okay, so that's probably a bit harsh, but only a bit.

Traditional vinegar is usually made using the "Orleans" method, after the city in France. It is a biological process in which bacteria (acetobacter) convert carbohydrates, in the form of alcohol, into acetic acid (and a number of byproducts that add flavor). The vinegar is aged for months in wooden casks, is racked, and etc. Although it is difficult to follow all the nuances of the Orleans method at home, very good results can be acheived if all one has is a food safe, non-reactive container with a wide, open mouth. A large glass jar is ideal.

Other than the container, all you need is a flavorful alcoholic beverage and a starting culture, or "vinegar mother".

The alcohol is usually red wine, white wine or hard apple cider. Beer can be used to make malt vinegar, but hops are a preservative, which can interfered with acetobacter. Malt vinegar is usually made from a beer that lacks hops. A local home brewer is usually a good source for such brew. Any alcohol could be used, even vodka, but spirits (especially when diluted to the appropriate alcohol level) lack enough flavor to make a distinctive vinegar (but, feel free to experiment). There are any number of unique and distinct vinegars made from all sorts of alcoholic beverages: pineapple vinegar, pear vinegar, date vinegar, palm vinegar, etc. So, there is really no limit on the sorts of vinegar that you can make at home.

As for me, I rely on the classics. My personal favorite base beverages for vinegar come from Trader Joe's: Two-Buck Chuck. This is so economical that my homemade vinegar is cheaper than the stuff you can buy in the store and better quality. Bonus.

As for the vinegar mother, it is a cellulosic disc that usually floats on top of developing vinegar, is sort of funky looking, and is bacteria rich. However, even if mother isn't visible, non-pasteurized and non-filtered vinegars contain enough bacteria in the liquid to act as a starting culture.

You can get mothers from friends who already make vinegar, on the internet, or from a natural vinegar product on the market. Bragg's is a very popular brand in health food stores that contains vinegar mother (check the label).

To make the vinegar you simply combine the alcoholic beverage with the mother. The alcohol level is important but doesn't have to be precise. Ten percent alcohol by volume is a good target to shoot for, which usually means diluting wine a bit (two or three parts wine per part water, depending on the abv of the wine) or using ciders straight. Also, because you may not be sure of the vigor of your starter, I usually use only twice the amount of alcoholic beverage as starter. So, if I have 8oz of starter, I add only 16oz of diluted wine. This means your bacteria will have a favorable environment while excluding other bacterial competition.

All this liquid gets placed in the glass jar. Leave the jar open, but cover with a paper or cloth towel with a rubber band. This will keep the vinegar flies out, but you need oxygen for the bacteria to thrive. This is why the wider the jar's mouth, the better. If the jar's mouth is a little narrow, be sure to only fill it below the shoulder of the jar.

Now place the jar in a warm room temperature (70-80 degrees F), dark space (such as a cabinet). Wait at least a month. By this time you should see a mother, or parts of a mother forming. If not, something has probably gone wrong (too cold, starter was dead) etc. If the mother is in process, wait another month and your red wine or cider vinegar is probably ready. Taste it to see whether it needs more time (or test with a pH meter), filter and use. White wine vinegar often takes longer to make (usually twice as long) because of the precise nutrient mix in white wine slows the bacteria down a bit.

Once ready, the vinegar should be moved to a container with very little oxygen, such as an empty wine bottle filled to the top and sealed, in some way. Eventually, in the presence of too much oxygen, the bacteria will convert the acidic acid into carbon dioxide and water, though the process takes many months.

When my vinegar is ready, I usually pour half of it off for use, and return the rest to the jar to use as a starter for the next batch. That way, I've been making vinegar continuously for years.

Not only is this vinegar great for personal use, it also makes a good gift. Though be sure to warn the recipients that because it is a living product, there may be some continued cellulose development ...
wouldn't want them to think you gave them vinegar that went bad.


If you've read this far, then you most likely have the patience to make vinegar yourself. I can't recommend it highly enough. It is inexpensive, easy and the quality is a huge improvement over most store bought. After you make some yourself, do a comparison test. You'll be impressed.

That's it for this week. If you have any questions about canning, pressure canning, fermentation (like making vinegar), dehydration, freezing, pickling, curing, smoking or brewing, feel free to email me at

Be sure to check out the blog, which is updated several times a week:

This week, I once again take on an article from Slate that sort of misses the point:

And/or join the Facebook group:

Ernie Miller

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