We’re all about DIY when it comes to our favorite foods (think sauerkraut and fresh cheese). Why not try making our own pantry staples, too? To learn how to make vinegar at home, we turned to Karen Solomon, author of Asian Pickles and Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It. Follow along as she explains how to create the best-tasting red and white wine vinegars with just a few ingredients — and a little patience.
We say that good wine turns to “vinegar” if not stored properly, but conjuring truly delicious homemade vinegar is a wholly different stomp of a grape.
Starting with good red or white wine is a step in the right direction. My guess is that you already know where to buy quality wine, champagne, sherry, or cider – the best flavored vinegars always start with well-flavored, highly drinkable alcohols that lean a little sweet.
To it, one must add our personal, bacterial friend Mycoderma aceti, better known as a “mother”—the spongy spore that turns all things alcoholic into vinegar. Beyond that, all else that’s needed is a storage vessel, maybe a little water, and weeks or months of patience.
Procuring the M. aceti requires a bit more cunning. If you already have a friend who makes vinegar, ask them for a “mother” to help make your first batch go. Option two: purchase unpasteurized vinegar (often found in health food stores) witih visible bits of flotsm in the bottle, and let it rest, poured into a glass jar with cloth stretched across the top to allow air to flow in, for several weeks until a mother forms. But, if you’re truly starting from scratch, you will need to purchase our bacterial friend (often sold as “mother of vinegar”) from your local beer brewing supply shop or online.
Now let’s talk equipment. While a vinegar crock with a spigot on the bottom is helpful, it is certainly not a necessity. A large, wide-mouthed glass jar or half-gallon canning jar will do the trick. Just keep it somewhere room temperature and dark with good air circulation, and secure a clean cloth or a paper towel over the top to allow air to flow in, but keep out insects and debris. Let it rest somewhere out of the way. It’s important not to disturb the mother spore floating on top while she’s doing her job.
And water? Well, it depends. A big 12-14% wine should certainly have some added water both to tame its flavor and to allow for a more bacteria-friendly digestible conversion from spirit to acetic acid. However, a tame cider or white table wine at about 5-6% will not require dilution. Read the alcohol content of the alcohol you’re using and try to keep the alcohol level at around 6%. For many wines, this means adding water at a ratio of 1 to 1.
Once the mother is in full bloom (meaning you have either a spongy fungus or a shiny rainbow slick floating on top of the crock), you can start to carefully remove some of the converted vinegar from the bottom of the vessell (using a straw or a turkey baster inserted alongside to as not to disturb Mom.) If your vinegar is nearly fully converted from wine, you can also add more wine and water to the mix. However, if you’re using a jar without a spigot, taking liquid from the bottom without disturbing the top can be a tricky prospect.
I’ve had wine turn to vinegar in as little as five weeks, but three months is not an unusual conversion time. Also, note that you can use any kind of wine, cider, or sherry here, but keep in mind that the finished result will retain some of the flavor characteristics of the drink you started with. It is not recommended to mix your brews; for example, if you start with white wine, only add white wine to the jar. Pasteurizing your vinegar is optional, but it is recommended for vinegar that you plan to store on the shelf for more than a few months.
For this recipe, I’m going to assume that we’re starting from scratch using vinegar starter.
DIY Homemade Vinegar
Time: About 3 months
12 ounces liquid vinegar starter (Mycoderma aceti)
2 cups white or red wine (on the sweet side, about 12-14% alcohol)
1 cup water
Combine all of the ingredients in a vinegar crock with a spigot on the bottom or a large, clean half-gallon glass jar or canning jar with a wide top. Loosely cover the top of the vessel with a thin kitchen towel, a triple layer of cheese cloth, or a paper towel and secure it with either a rubber band or a canning band. The idea here is to allow airflow in, but keep insects and debris out.
Store the vessel at room temperature in a dark place and let it sit, undisturbed, for 1 to 3 months. The liquid will grow more cloudy, a sheen will gather at the top, and eventually, a “mother”—a spongy, mushroomlike object or very cloudy oil-like slick —will form on the surface. The best indicator of doneness is to taste your vinegar. Use your finger over a drinking straw to take a small sample of the vinegar taken from the side. If you like the flavor, proceed. If you’d like it to taste less like wine and convert further, let it sit and taste again in two weeks.
Once your wine has converted fully, you have several options. Strain the vinegar, reserving the mother. The vinegar is ready to use immediately.
The mother can be used instead of liquid starter to grow additional batches of vinegar (using the same recipe as above). Note that your mother must be “fed” with at least another cup or more of water and wine. If you don’t wish to make more vinegar, it can be refrigerated in the water and wine for later use. Old, fully spent mothers will become rubbery and solid (they are the top-most layer). These should be peeled away and discarded over time. The younger, thin layers of spore beneath it are fertile and each one is capable of beginning a new batch of vinegar. Feel free to experiment with different varietals of wine, or even sherry, hard cider, or beer, and to share your mothers with friends.
Your vinegar can be strained through a double layer of clean, thin cotton towel if you wish to have a clear product, but note that the sediment is harmless and tasteless. Homemade vinegar can also be pasturized to prevent it from getting cloudy and producing an additoinal mother over time; bring it to 170 degrees F for 10 minutes, allow it to cool, then bottle.
Makes about 1 ½ cups.