Serious Vinegar

What is vinegar, anyway? Truth be told, it’s nothing more than spoiled booze in some form or another. While pedestrian vinegar is plentiful and cheap, there’re two things you notice right away when you check out the good stuff in stores – the bottles are small and the prices are really high. What better reason would you need to make your own?

Great vinegars, from Aceto Balsamico de Modena and Vinagre de Shiraz to Zhenjiang and Sukang Baombang, are legendary for a reason, imbued with amazing depth and flavor. These gems power everything from dressings and marinades, gastrique and finishing notes, to soups, stews and much more. If you’re pickling, distilled white or generic cider vinegars are fine, but when you need something special for all that stuff I just mentioned, it’s time to get cracking in your home kitchen.

If you want to get technical, vinegar is a suspended solution of acetic acid in liquid, usually in the 5% to 9% range for culinary use. It’s been around for as long as humans have been making booze, which means something over 5000 years. Pretty much anything you can ferment can be made into vinegar, and that’s good news, because the vast majority of those options are delicious.

Distilled white vinegar, (AKA spirit vinegar or white vinegar), isn’t actually distilled – it’s made from neutral grain spirits – so you can make a vodka, gin or rum based vinegar too. Cider vinegar comes from just that, and with the recent explosion in local cider production, consider how many amazing variants of that you can make – how about a blackberry ginger or blood orange version? Hell yes.

Malt vinegar? Comes from beer – you can convert any bottle or can of beer, ale, stout, or porter into pretty amazing stuff. Wine vinegar? Your cellar and local store is the limit, which means a bunch of options. Any and all of these will be far better than what you can buy, and incredibly easy to make. And we haven’t even talked about fruit yet.

Almost anything with a decent sugar content can be fermented into booze and then vinegar. 5000 years ago, they used dates and palm sap. Today, pretty much any fruit you can think of is used. Two of my favorites in this regard are pineapple and banana, (actually plantain). Both are Mexican specialties, used from Veracruz to the Yucatán for fish, adobado, guisado, salsa, and much more. They’re subtle and delicious, but they’re hard to find and often out of stock, which is what lead to this post. Friends and I thought, why not take a swing at it? We did, the results rocked, and again, it’s easy and fun, (and perfectly safe I’ll add), so I’m sharing it here.

Making home vinegar from scratch is a two stage process, (but really just one long one, broken into two processes.) You don’t actually have to do much, other than monitor what’s happening and make sure everything is going right. If you’re making vinegar from something alcoholic, it’s simpler yet.

Many folks get a bit freaked about about fermenting because it’s ‘dealing with bacteria.’ Approached sensibly, it’s nothing to be worried about. What we employ to make vinegar at home are naturally occurring, beneficial fungus and bacteria – You’d have to be a troglodyte to not have heard all the buzz about good microbes, bacteria, yeast, and the like in recent years – it’s vital to our health, and what we’re using here plays for the right team.

Once we have alcohol, Mother is all we need to make vinegar – Mother is a beneficial bacterial culture, an acetobacter to be exact. Mixed with air, it converts alcohol to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar it’s delightful tang. You can buy Mother from brewing and winemaking shops, or snag some out of the bottom of a bottle of real deal vinegar, (like Bragg’s here in the states), or you can make your own, and then keep that going with each batch you make, (that’s my preferred method). When mother is happy, you’ll see powdery whitish stuff and even gooey ropes forming in your liquid – this is very desirable, so when you see that, you’ve know you’ve done well.

Let’s start with a super easy one, wine vinegar. For wine, here’s how it works – you’ll need some fine mesh cheesecloth – something like a Grade 80 unbleached cloth would be perfect, and a rubber band.

Select a white or red wine you like that’s in the 10% to 12% alcohol range – that’s the sweet spot for mother to do its thing – higher alcohol content just isn’t, and lower will deliver vinegar that won’t be shelf stable for long.

Open a bottle and pour yourself a glass, you deserve it. Like it? Then onward – Decant the rest into a sterilized quart mason jar, (dishwasher clean is fine).

Now drape a patch of cheesecloth over the top and rubber band that sucker down – the ability for the yeast in the air to get to the wine is critical – no air exchange, no vinegar, (and the cheesecloth will keep fruit flies out of the mix too.)

Set the jar in a warm, relatively dry spot out of direct sunlight, and let ‘er rip – the conversion to vinegar can take anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks, so be patient.

Perform a weekly check of your vinegar-to-be. If you see a whitish scum on top of your wine as things progress, and everything smells good, you’re on your way – that’s vinegar mother forming. If you get any kind of dark surface scum and accompanying bad smells, that’s not good – Scoop all that stuff off and keep going.

Taste your product weekly – when it tastes like vinegar and smells good, you’re there. Transfer the stuff to a clean bottle and cork it – Vinegar eats metal, so clean glass bottles and cork is the way to go.

Let it sit for a couple days, then pull the cork. If you get a pop, that’s CO2 escaping, a sign that your vinegar isn’t quite done yet – put cheesecloth over the bottle top and give it another week – that should do the trick.

If you want to speed things up a smidge, add 1/4 cup of mother laden vinegar to the wine and you’re off to the races – it’ll cut the production time notably.

Love malt vinegar? Grab a couple bottles of beer, ale, porter, or stout of your choice, and do what we did with the wine. Because of the lower alcohol content, homemade malt vinegar generally won’t have the long term shelf stability other stuff will – but no biggy – just make it more often.

Want to build the ultimate home malt vinegar? Go find a locally brewed ale or stout in that 10% to 12% alcohol sweet spot – it’ll make amazing, shelf stable, vinegar – bring some of that back to the brewery and turn them on, you’ll likely get a free beer – maybe more if they have a kitchen.

On to vinegar from fruit. When we do this, we’re doing the two step process mentioned earlier – first, we’re gonna make booze, and then turn that into vinegar. You can make vinegar from juice, or macerated fruit, or chunks if you’re lazy like me. Juice or macerated fruit allows yeast more access to the fruit, and your process will go faster, but I find it more fun to be patient and let nature do her thing.

The more fruit you process, the deeper the flavor, but there is a ratio to maintain. I’ve found that filling a half gallon mason jar roughly 2/3 of the way with mashed or chopped fruit and then topping off with fresh water is spot on – I get lots of flavor and aroma with minimal fuss.

If you want to increase the fruit content, you can batch infuse. Fill your jar as described above and let it sit for a week, then decant the liquid into another jar through a strainer to catch the fruit. Refill your first jar with fresh fruit and repeat for another week. Do this three or four times and you’ll get a notably more intense flavor profile. It’s a great process for fruit with a lower sugar content.

Once you’ve got a jar full of fruit and water, cover it with cheesecloth and set it in a warm, quiet spot out of full sunlight – This is the point where that local yeast goes to work making booze for you.

Again, you can certainly add a little mother to help speed up the overall process at this point. Since we’re making booze first, you don’t need as much – 2 tablespoons is plenty.

As we did with wine vinegar production, let things go in one week increments. You’ll not likely see much happening in week one, but by the second or third, expect to see little bubbles forming on jar edges and the surface of your mix – that’s CO2 getting produced as yeast eats sugar and converts it to alcohol.

As you check progress, use your nose, mouth and eyes – By the two to three week point, you should smell a faint whiff of booze coming off your jar, and taste that too. Keep an eye on things, assuring that what you sense is pleasant. Anything dark, stinky, or nasty tasting is not desirable – scoop it off and keep going – the good guys should take over again when you do.

After somewhere in the 3-6 week range, the local yeast will have done its thing, and the process changes from alcohol production to conversion of booze to acetic acid. Taste testing now begins to focus on that desired acidity – we all know what good vinegar tastes like, and how sharp it is, right? If you didn’t answer yes to those last questions, shame on you.

Once you’ve reached the desired state of vinegariness, you’re ready to clarify and bottle. Line a chinois or funnel with cheesecloth and carefully pour your vinegar through into a clean glass jar or mixing bowl. A couple of passes will make sure any fruit goo, seeds, skin, etc doesn’t make it to your finished product.

You’ll see ample evidence of healthy mother production – lots of that powdery white stuff and some gooey, ropy stuff too – as you filter, rest assured that sufficient amounts of mother will make it to your vinegar jars.

Bottle in sanitized glass, with clean cork stoppers. You now have shelf stable, incredibly delicious house made vinegar – what kind will you make next?

Now for those two fruit versions I promised

Urban’s Vinagre de Piña

If you want this to be muy authentico, you need piloncillo oscuro (dark) sugar – it’s made from pure sugar cane boiled down to a thick syrup and then poured into cone shaped molds, and has far greater depth and nuance of flavor that our brown sugar. It’s readily available at Latin markets and online.

1 ripe Pineapple

1/4 Cup Piloncillo Sugar

2 whole Cloves

Water to fill a half gallon mason jar

Optional: 2 tablespoons vinegar with mother.

Trim top and bottom from the pineapple, the remove all the skin, skim cutting around the outside edges.

Cut pineapple into roughly 2” chunks.

Cut a hunk of piloncillo and microwave for 15 seconds – that should soften it enough to grate or hand crumble.

Add sugar and cloves to a clean half gallon mason jar.

Fill jar half way with fresh water and stir vigorously to dissolve the sugar.

Add pineapple, then top off the water to within roughly 1 1/2” of the top of the jar.

Drape tight cheesecloth over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.

Let sit in a warm, quiet spot out of direct sunlight.

See above and follow specifics of the process. Without added mother, the process will take a good 6 to 8 weeks to complete, a bit faster if you live in hot country.

When you can find it, what often is called banana vinegar is no such thing – the real deal made down in Mexico is made with plantains. Sometimes called cooking bananas, plantains come from the same family, but are a far cry from bananas – they’re starchier, seedier, and have a notable lower sugar content, and generally want to be fried, baked, or boiled and topped with something sweet to be truly tasty.

In Veracruz, the Macho Plantain is the one most often used to make vinegar – it’s big, hence the dubious moniker, and gets used for all kinds of dishes – there’s even an empanada dough made from them.

Machos are among the sweeter of the plantains, not as potato like as some. They make a delightfully subtle, nuanced vinegar. They’re also the variety most grown up here in the states, so you can actually find them pretty readily at local Latin groceries, (they’re readily available online as well). My version uses warm spices you’d likely find in a Veracruzano molé.

Urban’s Vinagre de Plátano Macho

6-8 Macho Plantains

1 Cup Piloncillo Sugar

1 whole Star Anise

1” stick Canela

1 whole Clove

Fresh water to fill a half gallon mason jar

Optional: 2 tablespoons vinegar with mother.

Peel, end trim and chop plantains into roughly 2” chunks.

Cut a hunk of piloncillo and microwave for 15 seconds – that should make it soft enough to grate easily.

In a clean half gallon mason jar, combine sugar, star anise, cinnamon, and clove.

Fill jar half way to the top with fresh water and stir vigorously to dissolve the sugar.

Add plantains and top water off to within about 1 1/2” of the top of the jar.

Drape tight cheesecloth over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.

Let sit in a warm, quiet spot out of direct sunlight.

See above for specifics throughout the process. Without added mother, the process will take a good 6 to 8 weeks to complete, a bit faster if you live in hot country.

Author: urbanmonique

I cook, write, throw flies, and play music in the Great Pacific Northwet.

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