Wait! Before you decide to empty the remaining contents of that bottle of wine that you opened a week ago and forgot about down the drain, consider making it into vinegar. Quite frankly, if you had forgotten about that bottle of wine long enough it’d eventually turn itself into vinegar. I was reading Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation that I borrowed from my school’s culinary library last week. He writes that the word ‘vinegar’ comes from the French word vinaigre, vin for wine and aigre for sour. Naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria called acetobacter consume the alcohol in wines and other fermented beverages and turns it into acetic acid, which we then recognize as vinegar.
Why on earth would somebody bother making their own vinegar when it can be purchased in big gallon jugs for a few dollars? Well for one thing, the goal of mass produced vinegar is usually to make as much of it as possible for as cheap as possible. By using the stuff that you’re willing to drink to turn into vinegar means that your homemade vinegar will easily surpass the flavor of the store bought kind. Plus, it’s be a shame to throw out that wine that you’ve already paid money for. Why not transform it into something else? A second reason is that it’s a fun to collect mason jars of cool stuff inside. Third is for that sense of satisfaction that you made it yourself. All right, reasons two and three may be unique to me. But I feel like reason number one is enough to at least give it a try.
Homemade Vinegar Checklist
- Red, white or sparkling wine/hard apple cider/rice wine/beer
- Mother-of-Vinegar (optional)
- Non-corroding vessel(s)
- Cheesecloth and rubber band
An alcoholic beverage such as wine (red or white wine vinegar), sparkling wine (champagne vinegar), apple cider (apple cider vinegar), rice wine (rice wine vinegar), or beer (malt vinegar) are a few of the more common options to use as the foundation for vinegar. Although these will all eventually turn into vinegar on its own, it doesn’t hurt to add a mother-of-vinegar, or mother for short, to get the process going. Mother is a a jelly like substance that forms in vinegar that contains the bacteria and cellulose that converts the alcohol into acetic acid. You can see the mothers as the discs floating in my jars of vinegar in the photo below. It’s quite harmless – it can easily be strained out or consumed. In fact, some people even say that it’s very nutritious. To be honest after seeing mine develop in my jars they remind me too much of weird test tube goo. I’m not planning on eating that stuff anytime soon. Let me know if you do try it, I’m curious what you think.
For my vinegar experiment I decided to use Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar since it’s unpasteurized, unfiltered and says ‘with the Mother’ on the label. I was able to pick up a bottle at my local Whole Foods. I’m sure other natural foods stores carry it and if worst comes to worst, there is always the internet. Just a tablespoon of the stuff added to the alcohol of choice worked for me. I’m sure other brands will do fine – just make sure that it’s unpasteurized and contains the mother. You’ll need those critters alive and well to do their job.
So now that we’ve got our ingredients, what vessel should be used? Since vinegar is acidic (obviously), it’s best not to use materials that will corrode, i.e. metals. I personally use quart sized glass mason jars. I’ve started to notice some corrosion on the canning rings so I will be swapping those out for rubber bands.
By the way, the alcohol to vinegar process is aerobic, meaning that the bacteria needs oxygen to do their thing. Having a larger surface area exposed to oxygen will transform the alcohol into vinegar faster. So don’t put a lid on it and cap it tightly. Instead, leave the jars open. Though I wouldn’t advise leaving it completely open – putting a layer of cheesecloth on top will keep fruit flies and other undesirables out.
So now what? Store your vinegar-in-process away from sunlight and away from other brewing projects – I wouldn’t be too happy if my sake project turned into rice vinegar! Every once in a while, maybe when you pop a cork or enjoy a beer, give your vinegar a little sip too. I like to check on my vinegar every few weeks and taste it and swish it around the jar to aerate it. I avoid shaking it vigorously since there’s no lid, and I don’t want the mother to fall apart on me. Once you like how it tastes, you can strain what will fit into a bottle and leave the rest behind for more wine feedings, or you can take the additional step and pasteurize it too. It will last forever so no serious concerns about shelf life here. Use it in salad dressings or whenever a recipe calls for vinegar in your cooking. I recently added a cup of my homemade red wine vinegar to my oxtails braised in red wine while it was cooking. Mmm.. delicious!
Here is one safety issue to keep in mind. Commercial vinegar has controlled percentages of acetic acid and therefore suitable for canning and preserving pickles. As this is a homemade product, it’s not safe to use for canning since the percentage of acetic acid is variable and unknown (At least I don’t know how to figure it out. I’m sure somebody out there who’s good with chemistry could. But still, best to err on the side of caution when it comes to food safety.) Fresh or quick pickles should be fine though since those won’t be canned for long term storage.