BY AMY PENNINGTON
This past fall I had the great fortune of teaching a quarter-long class on preserving to an eager audience of health-minded, highly educated individuals at Bastyr University. Using the prolific campus garden and taking cues from local farms, I built a thirteen-week course based solely on what was seasonally available to put up for the pantry. The course covered basics like jam and pickles, but we also had the time and opportunity to introduce specialized concepts like ratafia (fruit-infused booze), floral dehydration (picture hundreds of perfectly dried chamomile buds) and fermentation.
With any class I teach, I fully anticipate being asked a question that stumps me. Siona was one of my brightest students and challenged me to stretch my brain into an area where logic and knowledge meet up and battle for answers. It was during one such class when Siona asked if we could make vinegar. “Sure,” I said absent-mindedly agreeing and trying to put on my best poker face. While I’ve been preserving for years and have a reasonable understanding about the science of preservation, I’d never tried my hand at home vinegar-making. Honestly, it seemed both unnecessary and uninteresting. My desire to be a know-it-all, however, demanded that I do some research.
I started experimenting at home, reading up on the subject and ultimately found the easiest way to make vinegar starts with using expired red wine. I’ve since moved on to home fermentation of apple cider (forgetting about a gallon of cider in my fridge for months) and vinegar infusions, but what follows is the perfect starter recipe for anyone interested in making vinegar at home. I stick to using materials found around most homes.
This red wine vinegar recipe will take several weeks at a minimum, though it can be put together in the length of an afternoon. Over the weeks of curing, you will smell the transformation. One of the most important things to remember with homemade vinegar making is that in order for alcohol to turn to vinegar, it needs air. Oxygen helps along acetobacteria in the process of converting alcohol to acetic acid, the main component of vinegar. To jump start any alcohol’s conversion to acetic acid, I use the sediment found in a bottle of unpasteurized and unfiltered apple cider vinegar (available from many local grocery stores). This sediment will eventually turn into the ‘mother’: a thick gelatinous glob composed of plant cellulose that will float to the top of your vinegar jar. This mother is active, and may be used to start other vinegars.
Confused? Don’t be. You are simply adding helpful bacteria to alcohol, in order to turn the alcohol into vinegar—much like adding the right bacteria to milk makes yogurt. You will need to watch for unwanted mold forming on the surface of your wine solution. Skim it off and keep an eye on it. If mold develops again, toss the batch and start over—something may be off in the wine. It is good to note that you should only use wine you would like to drink. Simply put, crappy wine makes crappy vinegar. Finally, when all is finished and you can smell that your wine has converted to vinegar, pour a small glass, take a sip and toast both Siona and the power of curiosity.
Red Wine Vinegar
makes: 6 cups | start to finish: 20 minutes preparation; 2 to 3 months total
from Edible Seattle March/April 2012
large square of cheesecloth, 6 layers thick
1 large rubber band
glass one-gallon jar
6 cups red wine
One 8-12 ounce bottle organic, unpasteurized, unfiltered cider vinegar
Wash the glass jar in warm, soapy water and rinse completely. Add approximately 2 cups of red wine.
Drain the cider vinegar out of the jar slowly, leaving behind the sediment collected on the bottom. (Reserve the vinegar for another use.) Add the reserved sediment, and any small amount of residual vinegar, to the red wine. Place the layered cheesecloth over the jar opening, and secure with a rubber band.
Set the jar in a warm (70° to 90°), dark spot and let stand for 1 1/2 weeks. I use a cupboard in my kitchen, but a closet would also work well.
Add about 4 cups of red wine over the next 10 to 14 days. You may do this incrementally as you have leftover wine, or 2 cups at a time. After 14 days, the jar should be about one-third full. A thin, slimy veil will form over the surface during this time. Once the veil has formed, you will need to add the wine through the tube of a bulb baster tucked under the edge of the veil (so the veil remains intact and floating).
Let the jar stand for a total of 10 weeks in its warm, dark location. Check periodically: If your vinegar ever begins to smell off—like sulphur or other strong chemicals—discard it, wash the jar and start over.
When the vinegar is fully cured and smells sharp and crisp, pour it through a paper coffee filter and into a stainless steel saucepan. Heat to 155 degrees over medium heat, and hold it there for 30 minutes. Using a plastic funnel, pour into sterilized bottles. Use homemade vinegar for salad dressings, sauces or a condiment, but not for pickling—the acidity level may not meet food safety requirements for pickles.