By Kellene Bishop
Every time the hubster goes out to pick up something at the store he’ll ask me “Do you need anything?” My response is typically “just the basics.” In our household “the basics” always includes white vinegar. (and butter, just in case you’re curious)
I gotta tell you. Sometimes I’m just as grateful for the gift of vinegar as I am a beautiful sunrise. I can use it medicinally, to clean without the chemicals, to preserve foods, and to season. It’s also a GREAT weed control too. As soon as I find it in 5 gallon drums I’m likely to buy some. Hee hee But, anytime I find myself “loving” something that much, I have this crazy instinct which prevents me from fully enjoying something unless I’m able to answer the question “how can I create this from scratch?” (I’ll never be held hostage by Hostess again! That was just too traumatic. *grin*) I’m talking about making real vinegar made from scratch, not that flavored vinegar that you make from leftover wine.
Soooo, just in case there are any other crazy people like myself out there who have embraced the virtues of vinegar I thought I’d try and save you from doing without someday by turning you on to the fact that yes, you can make your own vinegar from scratch. You can make malt vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and just plain white vinegar. Frankly, there’s just an awesome amount of peace that I get knowing that I don’t have to rely on transportation, electricity, or Heinz to run a profitable business. I love knowing that “I do it my-seff”, as my adorable niece used to say. And so can YOU.
What I’d like to accomplish today is A) The encouragement to venture into this fun activity so you can enjoy chemical free cleaning, medicinal benefits, culinary craftsmanship, and a little lawn care. B) Provide you with the basics that you’ll need on hand that you can obtain now just in case you’re inclined to put off learning how to make vinegar for now but still want to make sure that you at least have all of the necessary supplies.
Fortunately, you’ll find this process relatively simple. Time is your friend mixed in with the occasional, brief tending steps. The vinegar making process uses the similar fermentation process as used in winemaking—in fact, technically speaking, you’ll pass the “wine” stage by the time you get to the finished vinegar product. This is why you’ll find that the “cooking wines” offered commercially strongly resemble the smell of flavored vinegars. It’s also why I giggle a little bit when I have friends who are horrified when I use a little cooking wine in my cooking. If they only knew that a finished dish that uses wine in it has the same finished result that you get when you use vinegar. The alcohol is burned off in cooking and it ferments out during the vinegar making process. The key flavor that you end up with in the vinegar making process is the acetic acid. (ranging from 5 to 18%) tartaric acid and citric acid.
Now let’s talk a little bit about the process. First, understand that you’ll begin with an alcohol base. (Technically I believe it’s actually ethanol which is a grain alcohol, but all of the instructions that I’ve ever used refer to it as alcohol—so I apologize for any confusion I might cause by using the term “alcohol.”) You will be creating a specific type of vinegar based on the bacteria that you introduce into the alcohol base. It’s this “mother bacteria” or “mother vinegar” that will transform the alcohol into vinegar through the fermentation process. Don’t panic about the alcohol base. It’s simple and inexpensive to create from nature in a myriad of different ways. If it wasn’t, there would be very few moonshiners. *grin* All you need for alcohol is fruit and sugar. When I first discovered this I got crazy looks from my friends when I asked them for their apple scraps or peach and apricot scraps. You don’t need the whole fruit. The scraps of the fruit will suit your alcohol making needs just fine. You can find “mother vinegar” online actually. (I’m presently waiting anxiously for my malt vinegar mother bacteria to arrive. I can’t believe I just wrote that, let alone felt the excitement as I did. Good grief. What’s become of me?)
Some more key things I’ve learned are a MUST when it comes to making vinegar include the necessity of having a super clean workspace. You need to be very careful to avoid introducing any bacteria into your process that you don’t purposefully want. It does seem a bit ironic to me because vinegar is oft times used as a healthy disinfectant. (That’s why sipping on warm vinegar water kills the bacteria in a sore throat.) But I guess you’ve got to raise the vinegar up right to have a healthy respect for bacteria. *grin*
Next, don’t make the mistake of using any metal instruments in your vinegar making process. I prefer a 2 gallon, wide mouth clay crock. (Mine has a spigot on it). You’ll want it wide-mouth so that you can tend to the fermentation process unencumbered. If it were me, I’d even stay away from stainless steel and cast iron. I’ve had something go wrong every time I use anything remotely metal. So stick to clay, glass, or ceramic. You could even use a wine barrel like they used to eons ago.
Next, stock up on that sugar; it’s critical to creating your alcohol. Most people look at my sugar stash and think that I just plan on having a sweet tooth through years of thick and thin, but in actuality I look at my sugar stash as my vinegar stash. You could also stock up on sugar beet seeds and make sugar from the sugar beets, but you can actually cut some corners and make alcohol directly from the sugar beets by using a fermentation process, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
You’ll also want to make sure you have plenty of cheesecloth. Straining and squeezing is a common part of making vinegar (and a myriad of other nutritionally valued foods). I purchase my cheesecloth by the yard online. I like to have a fine mesh and a good, hearty weight. Just do an internet search on “cheese cloth by the yard” and you’ll find current options. I only purchased it twice in 8 years, so I’m not up to date on what’s the best resource out there today.
I’d love to just give you the actual directions for the various vinegars you can make, but I’d feel somewhat dishonest in doing so because it would seem like “I’m” teaching you, when in fact I’m still learning variations of this process from awesome professionals such as Sally Fallon and Sandor Katz. So instead, I’m just going to highly recommend either (or both) of their books. Sandor Katz wrote “Wild Fermentation” and Sally Fallon wrote “Nourishing Traditions” which I’ve recommend previously when discussing the virtues of consuming fermented foods (otherwise known as the culinary art of zymurgy) If you stick to these two authors you won’t run into any of that internet mumbo jumbo leading you astray. (never trust a recipe that uses words like “should, possibly, might, probably, or maybe.”)
Once you get the basics down, I wholeheartedly encourage you to experiment with fabulous flavor creations. I’ve found that just the right flavored vinegar, such as a fig infused balsamic vinegar, to be just the right touch to make a sprout salad perfect! And I’ve made a wide variety of dishes that would be perfect if only I could add just the right touch of a tasty acidic level. Learning the skills of making vinegar can also transform leftover wine from a waste to a great resource.
I constantly encourage people to learn a skill that would be useful in a “society down” scenario—you know, in the event that our currency becomes useless, or a long-term power outage knocks us back to the 18th century. Learning how to make vinegar would be a very valuable skillset with a universal appeal. So, give it a try. You never know. It just may end up providing your family and friends with necessary food and shelter.