After a recent evening yielded several not-great “mystery” bottles of wine, the conversation turned to making vinegar, which I planned to make with the leftover wine. “How do you do it?” a friend asked. “I’ve tried with the vinegar mother someone gave me and it didn’t work.” A vinegar mother is the live, jelly-fish-like culture that transforms wine into vinegar.
I’ve discovered that —perhaps due to misunderstanding the loaded word “mother” — many people believe that vinegar is some mysterious substance, difficult-to-make, and too holy to mess around with. I’ve been making vinegar in my down-and-dirty, small-space, defying-the-accepted-wisdom-way for years. Not to mention, blending vinegars, as well as flavoring them.
The usual advice for making vinegar is to put leftover wine in a wide-mouth crock or bottle to expose it to as much air as possible. Although many advise procuring a “mother” to add, there’s no need to do that. If you cover the vessel of wine with cheesecloth (to keep out any insects, dust, etc), a mother should gradually form from the organisms responsible for vinegar fermentation, called Acetobacter, that are abundant in the air.
OR, the simple, foolproof method is to help the transformation along by adding a big splash unpasteurized —live— vinegar such as widely available Bragg Organic Cider Vinegar (with “the mother”, according to its label).
My radically lazy-dog method has been to simply pour leftover wine into a crockery vinegar bottle I got years ago and that already has some ongoing working vinegar in it, along with a splash of Bragg’s. I insert a very loose-fitting cork to allow an air exchange or cover it with some cheesecloth held tight with a rubber band. (With one of the bottles leftover from the “mystery” wine dinner, I just added some Bragg’s and covered it with cheesecloth: an experiment to see if I can make vinegar out of a sweet dessert wine.) The secret is NOT to seal the bottle or vessel. It absolutely needs to breath or it will die, which I expect is the mistake my friend made.
Then I just let the working vinegar sit in my cupboard for several weeks, tasting it occasionally to determine how far it is in the fermentation process, ie. if it’s ready to use. When it is, I decant most of it into a clean stoppered bottle, and keep adding wine to the rest. If you make A LOT of vinegar, you can also use a porcelain crock with a stainless steel spigot.
My method makes really good vinegar, which changes according to whatever wines went into it. Some people advise heating their vinegar to stop the fermentation process but I never both. I use it up too quickly. I’ve also never had a bottle of vinegar go bad, even ones I’ve had sitting around for a long time, like the miraculous Cherry Vinegar I made years ago.
The best book I know on the subject is Sandor Elliz Katz’s The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World. It will give you the thinking and science of vinegar making and all sorts of other interesting fermentation processes.
I’ve also noticed that there seems to be a taboo on mixing commercial vinegars as though each bottle was sacrosanct. Why? I started blending vinegars when I found a sherry vinegar I’d bought was a bit lacking. So I added in some balsamic vinegar, and a splash of good red wine vinegar until I had a vinegar creditable enough that guests were asking where I got it. I haven’t looked back.
As you’ve probably guessed from the Cherry Vinegar image above, you can steep all sorts of flavorings in vinegars to give them unexpected sparkle, from tarragon to cherry pits and stems. I’ve taken to making batches of shallot vinegar so I have an instant shalloty vinegar to sprinkle right on my salad with good extra-virgin olive or walnut oil.
The method couldn’t be simpler: chop some shallots…
…and put them in a bowl or jar with some red wine or sherry vinegar. Cover and let steep until you get the strength you like, then strain and discard the flavorings.
Et voila. The easy-peasy approach to having REALLY good vinegar on hand, which will make all the difference in your daily repertoire.