Everyone knows that if you age or store a wine improperly, it can end up tasting like vinegar. But can you do this on purpose, and use the wine to make your own, homemade vinegar? The answer is yes, and it is surprisingly easy.
Vinegar is produced by fermenting alcohol to produce acetic acid (the acid is what gives the vinegar its flavor). You can use any alcohol for the fermentation: cider, wine, beer, or any type of fermented fruit or grain, so making homemade vinegar is actually an easy and inexpensive activity.
So how do you make it? The key ingredient, besides a bit of time and oxygen, is the “Mother.” What mother, you might ask? The Mother of vinegar, a piquant name for the slimy bacterial film that forms on the top of vinegar and creates the acetic acid.
Where do you get “the Mother?” There are two ways. The first, if you’ve made vinegar before (or know someone else who has) is simply to use the Mother from a previous batch. A single Mother can be enormously fertile, producing bottle after bottle of homemade vinegar. If you don’t already have a Mother (or know someone who does), then you can sometimes find it in unfiltered cider vinegar at the store, or you can grow it yourself.
How do I grow my own Mother? I know, it sounds weird, but you can do it! Start with a low-alcohol wine. Pour it into a clear glass jar, swirl it around, then cover it with cheese cloth and a rubber band, and put it in a warm, dark place. It’s hard to pinpoint how long it will take to convert the alcohol into acetic acid: this will depend on the liquid you’re using and the conditions. It might take a few weeks, or a few months. Bacteria will slowly cloud the liquid and form a slimy layer on top. (Some people speed this process along by adding a bit of unfiltered cider vinegar to the wine.)
After a few weeks, check the starter to see how your Mother is developing. Try not to disturb the film on the surface too much (the film IS the Mother), but if it passes the smell test (i.e. if it smells like strong vinegar), unwrap the top and spoon a little out from the side to taste (or better yet, use a dropper). Again, try not to disturb your Mother! If it tastes—this seems obvious!—like vinegar, it’s done. If it doesn’t, cover it back up and try again in a week.
Once it’s ready, simply filter it through cheese cloth or a coffee filter and bottle it in sterilized bottles. Don’t forget to keep some of the slimy Mother on top for your next batch, though!
Some people like to pasteurize their homemade vinegar. This eliminates any remaining alcohol and potentially harmful bacteria. To do this, simple heat it to 170 degrees F for 10 minutes (this can be done on a stove top, or in a crock pot). You can also use the filtered vinegar without pasteurizing it; however, it should then be stored in the refrigerator.
What to do with your lovely homemade vinegar? Use it like you would any vinegar: you’ll notice the difference in taste. Try it in a classic vinaigrette.
You can also use it to make flavored vinegars. Simply add herbs, fruit zest, garlic, etc. to the vinegar for a time (a day for strong flavors like garlic, or several days for herbs). Strain the vinegar again when you have reached the optimum flavor. Note that flavored vinegars should be stored in the fridge and used more quickly than unflavored.
In Europe making vinegar is like making olive oil or wine: something that many families do as a matter of course for their own consumption. If you can find a Mother, you have time to make a batch before the holidays, as a bottle of homemade vinegar makes a unique gift for food lovers. Treat yourself and your family to homemade vinegar, and let us know what you think!
By Peg Kern
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