What is it that finally pushes us over the edge and motivates us to try something new? Even when it’s something we’re pretty sure is easy and know would be rewarding, it can be a real effort to begin a new venture. I’m speaking culinarily, but it’s true across all the areas of human endeavor. There’s a resistance—a fear even—that keeps us moored in our comfort zone. But such shifts from the conventional to the experimental are often worth it. Once one is familiar with the new technique and routine, the food in question can enter the regular rotation, permanently substituting for store-bought alternatives and often exceeding them in quality.
In my erratic, but still determined, mission to outsource less and less of my food production, for the last couple of years I have been making vinegar. I first got serious about it when I visited Brother Victor- Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette atOur Lady of the Resurrection Monastery in LaGrangeville, where he concocts a selection of revelatory vinegars. He sent me home with a jar of “mother”: a slimy colony of bacteria and soluble cellulose that forms over time and converts alcohol to acetic acid. Acetic acid, for those of you who are unaware, is vinegar. The inspiration of the visit notwithstanding, the slimy mother sat patiently in my cabinet until months later when I unknowingly purchased a bottle of wine that had turned to vinegar. At that same time, the biodynamic fruit CSA I had joined started including a wealth of apple cider in their weekly deliveries. Faced with two half gallons of cider that I could have easily consumed myself, I instead opted to let one ferment. And thus a bad bottle of wine and a good bottle of cider began my zealous experimentation with homemade vinegar.
MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPER
I began by adding another bottle of drinkable red wine to the spoiled one in a half-gallon jar, dropping in a glistening blob of mother for goodmeasure.Once the cider—also transferred to a glass jar—was fully fizzy and fermenting, I added mother to it as well. Because it was summer, I covered both jars with a few layers of cheesecloth and secured them with rubber bands so the fruit flies couldn’t get in. (It’s important to keep the vinegar-to-be exposed to air, so don’t seal off the containers). And then? Then I did nothing. That’s the entire process.
A few months later, the red wine was pungent and ripe. I decanted about half of it, and topped the jar up with another bottle of decent, inexpensive wine. I use it in everything. It’s glorious; the basic house vinaigrette for salads is now a thing of ecstasy-inducing wonder and other dishes have a bright, mouthwatering quality. Sour—an inherent characteristic of vinegar—along with bitter tends to be an underused taste. There are not many savory preparations that cannot be improved, their flavors sharpened, with the judicious use of high-quality vinegar.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that vinegar is the easiest homemade product to master—far less challenging than baking bread. It makes itself, especially in the case of unpasteurized apple cider. Apples are naturally covered in yeast (often it is visible as a white dusty film), which ferments the sugars in cider to alcohol. The alcohol is in turn converted into acetic acid by naturally occurring bacteria, which are present everywhere. In an open, nonreactive vessel, screened against flies and sheltered from sunlight, vinegar happens. Eventually, a mother will appear on the surface, the milky disc of cellulose and microbes that will thicken over time. Vinegar mother is virtually identical to a kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Kombucha and vinegar are essentially the same product, just at different stages of fermentation; kombucha takes a few weeks and vinegar takes months. It is not necessary to have a mother to make vinegar, but it will accelerate the process. If you have access to the apple cider vinegar “with the mother” that they sell at health food stores, you can use that, or steal some from a friend. The mother is a living thing so it grows naturally, allowing you to divide it among more and more jars, and pass it on to others. Like a sourdough starter, a vinegar mother can be propagated to provide an entire community with a truly artisanal, and communal, product.
TRADITION MEETS IMPROVISATION
D’Avila-Latourrette came to this country 40 years ago from his home in the Pyrenees, bringing some vinegar mother and a 12th-century recipe with him. He has modified the recipe a bit, but the red and white wine versions are quite close to the ancient original. He begins by crushing a chopped apple and pear in the bottom of a large pot (he makes five gallons at a time) and then adding orange peel, cinnamon, clove and bay leaf, and filling the pot with wine. He brings it just to a boil, turns off the heat and leaves it to macerate overnight to infuse the flavors, then he strains it into a glass carboy (a large glass container intended for a great deal of liquid) and adds the mother.
The carboy sits in a dark, quiet room in the monastery for six to 12 months, or even longer, until the vinegar is finished. “It takes a lot of patience,” he advises. “You can’t rush it; it’s ready when it’s ready.” He used to taste it every week, but now he tastes it monthly until about the six-month mark, at which point some varieties can be mature.
While wine and cheese require aging at cool basement temperatures, vinegar likes a comfortable room that doesn’t fluctuate too much.
“They ferment faster in the summer,” says d’Avila-Latourrette, “so taste them regularly after three months.”He also advises adding some honey or sugar if fermentation seems too slow, as fermentation is accelerated when sugar is present. “The vinegar needs air. Poke down the mother from time to time so it can breathe.”
Miriam Rossi is the Professor of Chemistry on the Mary Landon Sague Chair at Vassar College. She teaches “The Culture and Chemistry of Cuisine” with her colleague David Jemiolo, an associate professor of biology also at Vassar. The class includes lab and kitchen work, and the students cook food that illustrates different principles over the course of the semester. The two bring their students to the monastery to see and taste the vinegars as part of the curriculum. Besides explaining the biochemical processes that turn wine and juice into vinegar, they have also taken samples of the monk’s vinegar mothers back to the lab: “We’re in the process of figuring out how to extract DNA from them to analyze how they differ from each other, and whether those differences might contribute to their unique tastes,” Jemiolo explains. Whatever the conclusion turns out to be, there’s no question that quality ingredients make for a quality product, says Rossi: “He makes sure he gets prime materials and gets the best results.”
D’Avila-Latourrette uses organic wines, cider, and spices, and sources them as locally as possible. Follow his example. The less sprayed with herbicides and fungicides your wine or juice is, the more likely the mother’s microbial ecosystem is to thrive. I have had some batches of wine vinegar get moldy, and one attempt using berry wines didn’t ferment at all; I suspect heavily sprayed fruit impeded the natural fermentation process. In an effort to expand my pantry, I have experimented with a variety of vinegars, some of which have become staples. Sumac panicles, soaked in cider overnight and then strained out, impart a rosy hue and tart citrus flavor to the juice, making for complex and compelling vinegar. Spruce tips, picked in May and steeped in vodka for a week, then blended with white wine, yield a piney, limey result that works as well in ceviche as it does in gin cocktails. (Shrubs, drinks made from vinegar, have a long tradition dating back to 17th-century England and are fun to play with both as health tonics and adult beverages).
Blackcurrant juice makes a fantastic vinegar, dark purple and intensely fruity, and maple sap, reduced by about half and fermented, makes a clear yet insistently maple-flavored vinegar that begs for further experimentation. Other experiments that have not yet matured include carrot (made from half each of carrot juice and cider), pumpkin (pumpkin juice with pie spices: cinnamon, clove, ginger and allspice) and tomato juice (fermenting with some honey). They can be as simple or as ambitious as you want them to be. D’Avila-Latourrette advises starting simply. “Follow the method, be patient and make adjustments if you need to.” And use the best ingredients you can; the result will only be as good as what goes into it. This sentiment is echoed by Rossi, among other vinegar enthusiasts. Attention to detail and ingredients defines quality, handcrafted food products. While it might seem crazy to wait six months for something homemade, it’s the only way to let the natural process run its course. If you start a new batch every few months, before long you will always have some on hand.
If you want to make your own mother, unique to your microbial environment, buy a bottle of unpasteurized cider, open it, and leave it on the counter for a month or six. Don’t try this with pasteurized juice, Jemiolo warns: “The last person who stuck their thumb in the jar can populate it with all sorts of bad things.” Using a mother will ensure a large starting population of the critters you want. When it smells and tastes like vinegar, it is. You can use a piece to inoculate other varieties, if you like, or just keep decanting some and adding more cider, wine or juice to turn. “Vin aigre” means “sour wine,” after all. Nature does this for you. It’s probably the easiest homemade delicacy there is: easier than pickles, and that’s saying something. If it still sounds daunting, think about it this way: organic cider costs half as much as organic cider vinegar. And let’s not even get into store-bought salad dressings. Whether you do it as a science experiment, as part of your spiritual discipline or just to save money on a staple, there is no better introduction to artisanal food production than the slow, quiet art of letting wine go bad.
Vinegar is a two-stage fermentation. First, yeast metabolizes the sugars in fruit juice into ethyl alcohol, and then acetic acid bacteria (both yeasts and bacteria are ubiquitous in nature and our homes) metabolize the alcohol into vinegar. The alcohol (initially) and acidity (later on) tend to impede the growth of undesirable things like mold. If your vinegar grows mold, throw it out and start again.
Also, if you are inspired to make your own vinegar, it is important to note that the acidity of homemade vinegar tends to vary greatly. Because of this you should, for the sake of safety, avoid using such vinegar for canning or preserving foods at room temperature. If the vinegar’s acidity is not high enough, the food will not be properly preserved, and you run the risk of some nasty food poisoning. If you want to be safe and still use your vinegar in this way, be sure to use a pH tester to ensure that food is sufficiently acidic before canning it.
This story was originally published in December of 2012.