The Vinegar Experiment: Part I

A few months ago I picked up Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking" because I've been meaning to use the pots I've picked up over the years during my travels. In the back of the book, Wolfert discusses the process of making vinegar from old wine. This intrigued me.

Vinegar is one of those things I've never really taken advantage of in the kitchen. Earlier this year I went through and cleaned out my pantry and there were all these bottles of various types of vinegar just gathering dust. It's not that I dislike the stuff, I just never explored how to use it much.

I know it can be powerfully effective from the traditional splash of pepper vinegar on white beans and rice. It opens up the rich flavors of a dish at least as effectively as a hint of hot pepper. Not to mention it's nigh-infinite utility in vinaigrette sauces.

So I started researching to figure out how the process might work and if it would be worth embarking upon. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.

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The most important aspect of making vinegar requires obtaining a "mother" that will process the alcohol in the wine into acetic acid through fermentation. The aerobic bacteria, acetobacter aceti, that forms a spongy mass (the mother) that sits on the top of the liquid and does its work.

It is possible to create a mother from scratch from old wine in a process that takes up to six months. Alternately, you can order one already set to go online which is what I chose to do.

I decided to try a red wine vinegar to start since most guides use it and white vinegars require a longer fermenting period. Wolfert and others suggest using an organic fruity wine that is low in sulfates. It's also suggested to find one closer to 12% alcohol if possible. I consulted with the wine guy at Spec's liquor and settled on a Spanish wine, 2013 Flor Del Montgo monastrell.


I ordered a vinegar-making kit, complete with a mother from Austin Homebrew Supply that came with 8 oz of red wine mother from Supreme Vinegar. The kit included a 1 gallon glass jar with a wide mouth which I then sterilized in hot water and let cool.

The recommended formula for the vinegar was one part mother of vinegar, one part water and two parts wine. Since the chlorine in tapwater can be a problem, I used distilled water. Some guides urge boiling it to eliminate and bacteria that might impede the vinegar-making process.

I mixed 8 oz water with 16 oz of the wine in the glass jar. I swirled it a bit and let it sit a few hours to aerate. After that I carefully poured the mother into the water/wine mixture, covered it with cheesecloth and put it away.

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To allow the process to work correctly there are three things to address; oxygen, darkness and temperature.
  • The cheesecloth ensures the mother will have sufficient oxygen while keeping flies and such out of the bottle. 
  • Light impedes the process as well so I keep my bottle in the back of the towel closet that never get direct sunlight. 
  • The temperature needs to be between 60 and 90 degrees for the bacteria to work. While warmer temperatures allow the process to go faster, I know my closet is going to keep the temperature from fluctuating too wildly.
After one week, the promised film had formed on the top of the wine/water mixture and a slight acidic smell was present.


This means the alcohol in the bottle is starting to be converted into acetic acid. That initiates the second phase of the process; adding more wine to keep the process going. Some guides suggest simply adding extra leftover wine at this point but, since this is my first attempt, I wanted a more controlled process.
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After 10 days, I added 16 oz of undiluted wine and 8 oz of distilled water. I took the funnel and siphon hose provided in the kit to pour the wine into the mixture directly. Despite that the mother sank which, although disappointing, is not supposed to be a serious issue. I put it back into the closet.

Another week passed and then I complicated things a bit. I removed the mother and 12 oz of liquid to start another batch. I then added another 16 oz of undiluted wine and 8 oz of distilled water. This gave me a good opportunity so see exactly what the mother looked like and it was as disturbing as I had been told.

I was very worried I had messed up the process but, seven days later, a new mother had formed. I then did the last feeding for this batch; another 16 oz of undiluted wine and 8 oz of distilled water. Then I put it back into the closet to wait for it to fully convert all of the wine.

One thing that transpired that I did not expect is the new mothers seemed to keep forming on top of the old ones but none sank. Evaporation also began to take more of a toll on the level of liquid than previously had imagined.


After four weeks, I tasted the liquid and it was sharp and fruity. And when I say sharp, I mean it packed a nice little punch. I let it keep going another two weeks and then moved to the next steps.

Since I had already preserved the mother in my vinaigrier (look for a post about that in the future) I drained all the liquid into a plastic container and discarded the mothers. I then heated this in a non-reactive pot, letting it hit 160 degrees and hold there for about 20 minutes. This pasteurization will kill all the vinegar bacteria and stabilize the liquid. It can no longer be used for making vinegar.

I then moved the vinegar to sterilized bottles, using a coffee filter on the funnel to remove any loose bits of mother that might have remained. These now will go into storage for about six months but I reserved one bottle to use in various dishes over that time.


Sources:

"Lessons in Vinegar Making" Overall Gardener, May 6, 2015.

"Weekend Project: Make Your Own Vinegar" Williams Sonoma Taste, March 14, 2013.

Adams, Kim "Vinegar Files" Gang of Pour, October 2013.

Alterman, Tabita How to Make Vinegar at Home" Mother Earth News, February/March 2014.

Bee, Worker "How to Make Red Wine Vinegar" Mark's Daily Apple, January 22, 2011.

Cunningham, Shawn, "DIY Vinegar Is Worth The Wait," The Washington Post, January 7, 2009.

Dash, Toni "Make It Yourself: Homemade Vinegar" Boulder Locavore, February 28, 2011.

Hamilton, Melissa and Christopher Hirsheimer "How to Make Your Own Red Wine Vinegar"  Bon App√©tit, January, 31, 2013.

Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D, "How To Make Homemade Vinegar" ThoughtCo., July 1, 2016.

holybasil, "Word to Your Mother – How to Make Wine VinegarHot.Sour.Salty.Sweet. And Umami,  January 26, 2008.

Malle, Bettina and Helge Schmickl, "The Artisanal Vinegar Maker's Handbook," Spikehorn Press, Austin, TX, 2015.

Pawlcyn, Cindy, "Red Wine Vinegar Made at Home" Food52, May 17, 2012.

Taylor, Leona, "Making Vinegar With a "Mother's" Love," Chef's Blade, June 1, 2009.

Watkins, Patrick & Carole, "Homemade Vinegar: Make Your Own With Mother of Vinegar," A Printing Co.;Napa, CA, 1995.

Wolfert, Paula "The Virtue of Homemade Vinegar" Food & Wine, October, 2006.

Yandell, Kelly "How to Make Homemade Vinegar" Kelly Yandell The Meaning of Pie, December 10, 2014.