Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making Vinegar

One of my cooking goals is to make as many items from scratch, at least once. Not that I’m going to keep on making these things forever, but I want to know how the food I eat is made.

Some things, I continue making. Others, it’s a one-time event. And some I’ll buy sometimes and make other times. Vinegar falls in that last category. Yes, vinegar. It’s not hard, once you capture a mother.

A mother is what turns wine into vinegar. The mother is composed of cellulose and a bacteria. It’s the bacteria that turns the alcohol into acid, thus creating wine vinegar. As far as the cellulose, I haven’t a clue why it’s there or where it comes from. But that’s the information I found online.

The first step in making vinegar is finding an active mother. It took me over a year to find one, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t going to great lengths to find one. Bragg’s apple cider vinegar claims on the label that it contains the mother, but I used up two bottles of it without ever seeing the slightest hint of anything.

Then one day I was pouring out the last bit of a wine vinegar onto some lettuce, and a slimy blob landed on the lettuce. At first, I thought “yuck” but then I realized I had a mother.

When I first decided to make my own vinegar, I looked all over for decent instructions, but there was a lot of conflicting information. Once I had the mother, I had to do something with it, so I just put mother into a jar with some wine and hoped for the best. I covered the jar opening with a couple layers of cheesecloth secured by a rubber band to keep it clean while allowing it to breathe.

At first, I had it in a dark corner of my kitchen, because I’d read that the bacteria wasn’t fond of light, but it wasn't doing much in that corner. Apparently, a dim corner wasn’t good enough, so I covered the jar with a dark cloth, and it was a lot happier. I was getting little wispy white things growing in the bottle, and it started to smell more tangy and less winey. I finally moved it to my pantry/closet, which is always dark unless I'm in there.

The first batch I made, I was pretty impatient, and I pulled some out as soon as it was tasting vinegary enough, which was about a month into the process. Now O just keep feeding it more wine as it evaporates or as I take out wine to use, so the bacteria stays active. Also, I've moved the vinegar a couple times into bigger containers.

Right now, I have three different vinegars going. I’ve got a white wine vinegar, a red wine vinegar, and a vinegar made from a sweet wine similar to eiswein. I started with quart jars and now the red and white are in those big glass jars that some people use for iced tea or sun tea. The eiswein is in a half-gallon jar.

To stop the fermenting the last time I poured some off, I heated the vinegar to 160 degrees and left it there for maybe 10 minutes. That's allegedly enough to kill the bacteria, but the white wine vinegar that I've been using has started growing a mother in the bottle, so maybe I need to get it all the way to a boil next time. The red wine that I treated the same way hasn't grown a mother, though. So maybe a few degrees higher (or a little longer) would be sufficient.

Needless to say, the mother looks a little weird in the bottle, but it’s not hurting anything, so I’m leaving it in there for now. When I refill the bottle with fresh vinegar, I’ll probably dump the mother, unless I decide to start a new batch of something else.

The nice thing about making the vinegar is that you can adjust the acidity to your liking. If it sits too long and gets too acidic, you just add more wine to get the right balance. So I just keep the bottles in the pantry, and when I'm running low, I taste and adjust and then when I need it I pour some off. I suppose I could get all scientific about it and test the acidity, but since I'm mostly putting it on MY salad, I just go by taste.

If you're pouring off just enough for current use, it probably doesn't need the cooking, but I did that when I had accumulated quite a bit and the jars were getting full and I knew I'd be storing some and giving some away.

I suspect that since the mother needs to breathe, if they're going into sealed jars, that should be enough to slow the growth enough so that you could put it in storage for at least a little while. The white wine that I have capped has just a tiny mother, but the one in the kitchen cabinet that has the open pour-spout has grown a pretty active mother.

The vinegar made from the sweet wine is really good. Really good. The sweetness of the wine makes the vinegar seem really rich. It's sort of like a balsamic is vinegary and sweet at the same time, but obviously this hasn't gone through an aging process.

I also tried making a vinegar made from mead (honey wine) but that failed pretty miserably. The mother started growing nicely, then it busted up and the whole thing turned murky. I suspect the antibiotic properties in the honey did it in.

Now that I’ve got really healthy mothers going, they mothers are no longer wispy jellyfish-like things. They float on top of the vinegar and if they aren’t disturbed, they can get pretty thick. Maybe a half-inch or more, and they kind of look like wax.

When I pour more wine in, the mother tends to sink, and pretty soon another mother forms at the top, Not sure what that's about, but at least I know it's all still alive and well. The mothers that are floating in the middle of the vinegar bottles seem to be still active (if they die off, they get thin and turn dark) but more mother forms on top anyway. I guess if I could add wine without disturbing the top layer, I might just have one big thick plug on the top.

So anyway, that’s the deal. It’s really simple and doesn’t require any fancy equipment and not a big investment in time. Just put the jar in a dark place and leave it alone for a while. Feed it leftover wine when you have some.