I first thought about making vinegar back in the early 80s when reading Craig Claibornes column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It was an article about how he began using up old dribs and drabs of wine to make vinegar.
He’d kept one culture of vinegar mother going for years, which he swore made a superior vinegar. Unfortunately, one sad day a house sitter, while doing some well meaning tidying up, had tamped the ground-glass lid down on the vinegar vessel so tightly that “he smothered Mother”.
Then, last year in Cowichan I heard the story of a neighbour who had made delicious apple cider vinegar, and spoke with another who infused vinegar with blackberries, and boiling it into a thin syrup, created a superior vinaigrette.
In late summer our front yard apple tree began dropping more fruit than we could keep up on trimming for freezing and drying, and the piles of cores and peels started to look like something I could work with. Even though the bulk of the fruit was cut away, there was still a good amount of juice and flavour in what was left, which was expressed when water and a bit of sugar were added.
Topped with a bit of wine yeast, this fermented into a fairly nice tasting cider. Since cider wasn’t what I was after, this was followed by a few spoonfuls of cloudy vinegar mother from a purchased bottle of organic cider vinegar.
Fascinated by this process, I also began a batch of plum wine/vinegar but didn’t pay enough attention to this ferment. The yeast was old, and the ferment went sideways, making a sizeable addition to the compost. This was followed by more successful batches of blackberry and pear, and in the end, I made 2 – 3 gallons of apple cider vinegar, 1/2 gallon of blackberry (blue ribbon at the Cowichan Exhibition), and one gallon of pear.
The results were outstanding. Each has a unique character and I’ve enjoyed them so much that the year was nearly done before I realized that I haven’t even considered using anything else for months. Naturally, I’m making more this year and in larger quantities.
Most instructions for vinegar suggest that you are done in 5 weeks. It is true that there is at this point a definite vinegar formation, but it’s really not finished. You will be better off making double your needs in the first year, so that you can wait a full year before using it in the future, as there seems to be a significant maturation of the vinegar flavour between 6 and 12 months, at least in my observation.
You will want to aerate the vinegar as it develops, in order to prevent it from developing an acetone finish and other unpleasant aromas. Ideally have an empty vessel into which you can pour the vinegar, and then transfer it back to the original.
After aging last year’s batch for about 4 months, I decanted most of the clear elements of the vinegars from the original aging vessels into smaller jars, setting the filtered sediment aside in a new vessel to sit.
Over time, this sediment settled at the bottom, eventually developing into the mother, floating at the top until disturbed, whereupon it would drift to rest at the bottom; and a beautiful amber and powerfully pungent vinegar, floating above the remaining settled sediment and mother.
As this occurred, I decanted the pure vinegar, and set the remainder aside to see what would happen with the remaining sediment, then set the mother aside, collecting it into a separate jar with enough vinegar to keep it active, until time to use it in the next batch, where it now is, fermenting.
Currently fermenting into cider in 4 gallon containers are 16 gallons of apples (which will be about 8-10 gallons of cider), and one with about 2 gallons of tomatoes, and on the second stage fermentation to vinegar, are eight gallons of apple cider, three of plum, three of rice vinegar, two of blackberry and a gallon jar of mixed plum/Oregon grape (a berry which is not a grape, but grows in clusters, and tastes similar to currant, but with hideously bitter seeds).
Looking for a good supply of large food grade buckets? Stop by your local supermarket and ask at the deli/bread counter if they have any buckets with lids, and you’ll likely find them happy to help. This will also help keep some of our plastics from being discarded too soon.
The “recipe” for making vinegar is simple:
Fruit juice, sugar (optional depending on the sweetness of the fruit), yeast, time.
That’s essentially it.
Strictly speaking, the yeast and the vinegar culture can be obtained from the air, but that’s a trickier process, and at least with yeast, the flavours obtained from them can vary greatly from yeast to yeast. I use a good commercial wine yeast to begin.
Even though the recipe is simple, I’m providing it below with the “steps” showing how a rice vinegar I made this past summer aged over time.
It’s a bit different with rice vinegar, since you use a grain rather than fruit. Also in the making of rice vinegar, there are two methods for the first stage. In the simple method, the rice liquid is sweetened with the addition of sugar. The more complex method uses amylase, an enzyme, which converts the starches in the grain to sugar before the fermentation is begun.
I’ll do another batch in the next few months and will add that to this then, along with a comparison of results.
Here is a lovely video: Brewing Korea’s Hanega Vinegar for 35 Generations from great Big Story & Korean Air
It’s a very short, pretty story, about traditional rice vinegar making in Korea, where they leave the rice in throughout the fermentation…another thing I mean to try in the next batch.