Did I mention I make my own vinegar? Of course I didn’t. The last friend I shared this with sighed audibly and warned me firmly that if she were to note I’d stopped shaving my legs, wearing the appropriate foundation garments or if she were to catch a sign I’m constructing a lean-to in my backyard, she would stage an intervention (I should never have told her about my worm composter).
I do make my own vinegar and you should too. This is the perfect time of year to start and you’ll have some ready for early summer salad dressings.
I make two types. Red Wine Vinegar and Apple Cider Vinegar. Making vinegar is very easy though there are some specifics you need to know to be successful.
- 1 gallon wide-mouth glass* jar preferably with a metal spigot (can be larger than 1 gallon)
- Cheesecloth and rubber bands
- A vinegar ‘mother’ (see Where To Buy below)
- The liquid to convert into vinegar (organic red wine if making red wine vinegar or hard cider if making apple cider vinegar; you can also make white wine vinegar through the same process)
*must be glass or ceramic crock; plastic with interact chemically with the vinegar.
This name has always scared me, evoking memories of Sigourney Weaver in movie Aliens when she confronts ‘THE MOTHER’, the oozy, dripping, teeth-gnashing alien giant. This mother isn’t much prettier once it becomes a ‘big girl’. The mother is a mass of bacteria which serves to convert the liquid into vinegar. When you begin, it is an innocuous mucoidal blob which you put in the jar with the liquid. You’ll need a vinegar type-specific mother; they are different depending on whether you are making apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar.
Over time the mother grows to make an opaque thin layer on the top of the liquid. Each time you add more liquid it usually dislodges the mother and a new one will grow. When your batch is mature, you can even give part of your mother to a friend with some of the vinegar and they can start a batch of their own. I’ve heard tell of people (all of them in France) who have been working with the same mother for 20 years.
- Before beginning decide where you’ll keep your vinegar. It should be a place where it can stay (they don’t love moving). It will need warmth (70-80 degrees is ideal), darkness and good air circulation. I started mine a year ago this past December when it’s cold in Colorado. I put it up on the highest shelf in my laundry room which was good for warmth. I wrapped a hand towel around the jar and fastened it with clips to keep it dark. It was too close to the ceiling however and was not getting enough air circulation. It began to smell like acetone (which I’ve also read is part of the process but not having had that happen since I’d say it’s not good). I brought the jars down lower and they’ve been fine. The cheesecloth, which you’ll put on the top of the jar opening, allows circulation and keeps things (fruit flies) out.
- Sterilize your jar with hot water (not boiling) and drain. I’d check the spigot before beginning to ensure it works. Because the conversion process is ongoing, you’ll be ‘feeding the mother’ (love THAT phrase; like having a pet) regularly. This refers to adding additional liquid to convert to vinegar. The converted vinegar will be at the bottom of the jar and the liquid in process of converting on the top. The spigot allows you to drain completed vinegar out the bottom for use and not disrupt the mother(s) by pouring out the top of the jar.
- Adding liquid. The container your mother comes in will have instructions of initial liquid to add. For the red wine vinegar I added 16 ounces of organic sulfite free (that’s the hook; you want to use low or no sulfite wine as sulfites can impede the conversion process) wine combined with 8 ounces of water and pour it into the jar (too high an alcohol content can also impede the process so it needs to be diluted). Then add the mother. For apple cider vinegar you add a bottle of organic hard cider and the mother. Put the cheesecloth (I recommend 2-3 layers) securing it with rubber bands.
The conversion process takes about 3 months depending on the conditions where you keep your vinegar. The warmer it is the faster it converts. You don’t want it overly hot (like in a boiling garage in the middle of the summer) for you can kill the mother.
Feeding the Mother: Until the vinegar begins to convert you want to hold off on regular feedings so as to not overwhelm the mother. Also I added my liquid with a funnel trying to direct the liquid to run down the side of the jar so as to not disrupt the mother. I’ll include my notes that show my intervals of adding liquid, though I added more liquid to mine about once a month. Continue to feed it the same amount you started with each time until you are getting vinegar (or at a minimum ensure the wine is always diluted with half the amount of water). I was very regimented at first but do it when I think of it now that I have a good size batch to draw from.
You will know the batch has converted by tasting it. You will also smell the vinegar. It’s not very strong but notable. You can leave the vinegar in the container and just draw off what you need. Some people prefer to drain a batch, pasteurize it by heating it and bottling it. You can infuse it with herbs as well (in a container separate from the main batch).
Why Make Vinegar? Because the taste is recognizably better than purchased vinegar. Plus YOU made it. Isn’t that the best part? Some say it’s a great way to use up wine which does not get consumed (that seems an oxymoron to me; ‘wine’ ‘not consumed’).
Fruit Flies. Depending on time of year and where you live, fruit flies may come to visit. They love vinegar. Three layers of cheesecloth, tightly secured to the jar opening will keep them out. I had a mass visitation this past fall and resorted to putting out small bowls with a bit of vinegar and a drop of dish soap in them which did the trick.
Proper air circulation: While the process is beginning really pay attention to the conditions where you are keeping the vinegar and the smell. If you get an acetone smell, check to ensure you are getting enough air circulation.
Evaporation: I’m not sure this is really an issue but something to watch and prompt feeding the mother. I noted when decloaking my red wine vinegar for photos a ‘recession line’ where I noted evaporation. I had not added liquid for awhile and being winter it’s dry and the heat is blazing. Just keep a watch on that and add more liquid if needed.
WHERE TO BUY
The Mother: There are many online sources: LocalHarvest and Amazon.com both sell them. Beer brewing and wine making shops usually sell them (in Boulder Hop To It on Valmont and their sister store in Denver Stomp Them Grapes both sell them).
There is a store that stands out for me though due to the expertise, willingness to help and selection: Northampton Beer and Wine in Massachusetts (click for link). I have phoned them a few times with questions and 5 minutes on the phone was as good as any book or workshop. They are an extraordinary online and brick-and-mortar resource. They ship and have many cool items for sale. Check them out.
Glass Jars. My first jar was a gift stemming from reading an article in Savuer. It is from an infusion jar maker and was about $50. It is undeniably beautiful though my second jar I purchased at World Market for $19 (Pier 1 usually has them too) and has served me well. (To check them in my photos the more expensive jar has the red wine vinegar in it and the World Market jar has the apple cider vinegar. Both come with glass lids which I don’t use for vinegar making).
Starting additional Batches from your Mother: The guys at Northampton Beer and Wine told me that once the mother has dropped from the top of the batch they are not as potent but also do no harm (if they get in the way of your spigot draining vinegar just take them out but leave the top active mother). If you were to want to start another batch you can cut part of your active mother (the uppermost one in the jar) along with some of the vinegar liquid and start it in another jar or give it to a friend. The mother you use part of will regenerate or another will form in your batch. They also shared in many cultures the inactive mothers are cut up in salads or other dishes for their believed medicinal properties.