The wonder of homemade vinegar
Making your own can result in a more robust product with sweet rewards
Though there are excellent commercial balsamic and sherry vinegars, making your own vinegar, using wine you enjoy, can result in a more robust and complex dressing. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
When I first heard this story back at Holy Trinity Catholic Grammar School, I was horrified. Vinegar, to my 6-year-old mind, was just about the worst substance on earth.
Fortunately, in the ensuing decades I have discovered what a wonder vinegar is. Today, we'll talk about making our own from red wine.
Why you need to learn this
Though there are excellent commercial balsamic and sherry vinegars, really good quality red wine vinegars are a bit harder to find. Making your own, using wine you enjoy drinking, can result in a more robust, complex product that's also mellower than the often highly acidic commercial varieties.
The steps you take
Vinegar can be made from many things: wine, beer, fruit juice. It's an ancient process, the natural result of bacteria converting alcohol into acetic acid. While you can make red wine vinegar simply by leaving an open bottle of red wine out for a few weeks, you'll have a better product if you use what's called a "mother."
The mother is the gelatinous mass of bacteria called Mycoderma aceti that converts the alcohol to acid. It forms on the top of developing vinegar and ultimately sinks to the bottom. You may have seen one in an older bottle of vinegar in your cupboard.
Good quality mothers can be purchased online or from shops that sell beer- and wine-making supplies. Or, if you have a friend who makes vinegar, ask for a piece of the mother. You can also look for organic vinegar with the mother inside (such as the Bragg brand at Whole Foods Markets.)
Now let's talk about the vessel. You can use a wide-mouth glass jar; just wrap a towel or tape some paper around it to keep out the light. (I specify "wide mouth" because the bacteria that convert the alcohol need a plentiful oxygen supply.)
But an earthenware crock with a spigot on the bottom is even better, because you can drain the vinegar without disturbing the mother on top. Ask the place where you get your mother about these.
Other than that, all you'll need is wine. Anything you like drinking will make a vinegar that's probably better than any you've bought.
What to do:
1. Thoroughly wash your vessel, then turn it over on a clean surface to drip dry. You don't want any other bacteria lurking inside.
2. Add a bit of store-bought red wine vinegar and swirl it around the inside of the vessel to kill any lingering beasties.
3. Add the mother and enough red wine to come about half- to three-quarters of the way up the vessel. You want lots of air moving across the surface.
4. Cover the top with cheesecloth, then secure it so it doesn't blow off.
5. Set the vessel in a warm place where it won't be disturbed, such as the top of your fridge, and let it stay there for about two to three months. Check it after a few weeks to make sure a fresh mother has started to form on the surface.
6. After a couple of months, smell the vinegar and sample a little to see if it's acidic enough for your taste. If not, let it go another week or four. It will continue to get more acidic until all the alcohol is converted. When it's done, drain the vinegar into a clean container and give the mother to a friend or use it to start a fresh batch.
DIY flavored vinegars
If this seems like too much trouble, you might want to use commercial vinegar to create your own flavored vinegars.
Fill a clean glass jar halfway with a selection of fresh herbs. Fill the jar all the way with vinegar. White distilled vinegar is cheap and works fine, but you can also use wine or cider vinegar.
Cover the vessel and keep it out of the sunlight, shaking it a little every day.
Start tasting after a week. If the flavor's not there yet, let it sit for as long as it takes, up to several weeks. When the flavor is right, strain out the herbs and bottle the vinegar in a fresh, clean jar.