Word to Your Mother – How to Make Wine Vinegar

 

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When I was child, waste was a foreign term. Back in the day when my parents were relatively poor immigrants, my mother saved and salvaged everything you can imagine. Plastic and glass containers, styrofoam trays, metal tins of all sizes, used ziploc bags – she re-used everything. She could and would not throw out anything either. Well, overall, I’d say it was a fairly smart approach although I think it has contributed somewhat to my hoarding syndrome. I detest any wasting of food or drink and I simply hate to pour down the drain leftover wine from dinners or gatherings. I get annoyed when I have to throw out wine from the barely-sipped glasses of guests who’ve poured a full glass with no intention of ever finishing it.

I’ve read about making vinegar in various old cookbooks, culinary journals as well as online here, here, here and here. The concept of making vinegar from wine or in this case, leftover wine, speaks with great poetry and profundity to my inner recycler.

If you do a Google search on How to Make Vinegar, the second site listed is Gang of Pour - a site devoted to the pleasures of wine drinking and tasting. One of its most popular pages discusses the art of making vinegar at home. It’s written by the group’s co-founder, Kim Adams, who’s been making her own wine vinegar for over 16 years. If you go to her page, you’ll see that she describes, along with some photos, the process of making vinegar from a starter culture – known as Mother of vinegar or in French, Mère de vinaigre. The mother is a slime composed of a form of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria (mostly mycoderma aceti ) that develops on fermenting alcoholic liquids, which turns alcohol into acetic acid with the help of oxygen from the air. I spent hours reading and re-reading her instructions (both on the actual page, in subsequent FAQs and comments to reader questions). And it boils down to this: Get mother. Add wine. Wait. Add more wine.

Really? Could it be that simple?

As luck would have it, Kim lives not far from me in Detroit, Michigan. I left her a comment asking if I might be able to come and get some mother from her. She replied that she no longer sends mother to people, however, since I was going to be in her area, she wouldn’t mind giving me some. Sweet! So, on a freezing cold, Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I met the lovely and wonderful Kim and her equally lovely and wonderful husband, George. As soon as we walked into the kitchen where she stores her vinegar crocks, we got a serious whiff of the vinegar smell. Boy, it is strong. That vinegar is no joke! I don’t mind it though, it’s not as unpleasant as fish sauce or shrimp paste. Hey, I’m just sayin’.

As wine enthusiasts, Kim and George enjoy a wide variety of alcohol and spirits. Kim doesn’t have just one type of vinegar, but many different ones including some made from various reds like Cabernet or Merlot, some made from whites like Chardonnay, another made from Muscat, another made from Sauternes and yet another from cherry wine… it was like vinegarpalooza. She gave me a taste of her cherry wine vinegar and honest to pete, it was the most delicious tasting vinegar I’ve ever tried. It was slightly sweet but not cloying, smooth and complex – like a fine aceto balsalmico. She brought out some of her crocks of vinegar and using a fork, reached into one and lifted the jiggly, wiggly mother that was floating on top of her vinegar:

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Ever seen childbirth?

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She had another crock of vinegar where the mother was not in the form of a gelatinous blob but more like an oil slick:

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She used some mother from her red wine vinegar to make white wine vinegar. (The mother originally started out red in color as those in the above photos. She continued to feed it only white wine and over a long period of time, it changed color). Here it is with a new layer of mother sitting on top:

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And a closeup:

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Another crock made with Sauternes:

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How to Make Your Own Vinegar

adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Sept. 1993
and Gang of Pour

All you need to make vinegar are a container, some wine and a starter (mother). The container can be a plain glass jug, a ceramic crock, or a small oak barrel – preferably with a wide mouth for easier access. Do not use metal as the vinegar will corrode it. Plastic is also not recommended. Wood barrels lend a softer, more interesting flavor to vinegar, but they are also far more expensive ($70 or more) than an empty gallon jar. Just add your leftovers to the barrel or jug. Red wine, which usually has fewer sulfites than white, is more easily cultured; white wine will likely take longer to become vinegar.

In the past, if you left wine to stand, the ubiquitous airborne bacteria called acetobacter turned it to vinegar. Today, wine makers commonly use sulfites or other preservatives to inhibit bacterial growth. As a result, an active bacterial culture must be added to wine in order to make vinegar.

Find a good starter. If you have a friend who’s already making vinegar, just get a piece of his or her mother of vinegar. Otherwise, buy an 8- or 12-ounce bottle of unpasteurized vinegar, also sold as “starter” from suppliers. This is enough to start a batch of vinegar, and you’ll never have to buy it again. Below is a photo of Bragg’s vinegar (which, as indicated on the bottle – contains mother), that you can easily find at many local markets:

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The Process

  • First, fill your container about half full of wine. Let it stand uncovered overnight to aerate; the bacteria need plenty of oxygen. The following day, add the starter (mother) and cover it with cheesecloth or with a piece of coarsely woven cotton cloth that will let in oxygen but keep out insects and debris. Finally, set the container in a dark location with a fairly constant temperature (ideally between 60F-80F) . You may add leftover wine from time to time, but never fill the container more than two-thirds full.
  • After a while – as little as two weeks in hot weather, and as long as two months at normal to cool room temperatures – a mold-like film will form on the surface of the liquid. This is the beginning of the mother. Within a few more weeks (it may take longer if you live in a cold area) it will thicken, and you may remove it and use it to start another batch of vinegar. You may choose not to remove it, but you should still take out a good portion from time to time, or it will continue to grow and take over your whole container.
  • Whether you remove the mother or not, the bacteria will remain active, and eventually the liquid will begin to smell more like vinegar than wine. At this point – usually within two weeks after the mother develops – you can bottle the vinegar.
  • To bottle the vinegar, line a sieve with at least 3 layers of new coffee filters. Using a plastic ladle, pour the liquid vinegar through the sieve. Once you have the desired amount, you’ll need to filter it at least two more times (each time using 3 layers of coffee filters). This is to remove as much of the sediment and mother as possible.
  • At this point, Kim often “ages’ her vinegar for about 2-3 weeks by storing it in a lidded glass or ceramic container (it’s important that it’s airtight because you don’t want oxygen here) with a small handful of wood chips tossed into the container. Much the same way wood barrels lend complexity to wine, the wood chips mellow and round out the flavor of the vinegar. And According to Kim, the chips also help to further collect any sediment left in the vinegar.
  • If you’re going to use the vinegar right away, you can choose to skip the pasteurization. That is, you don’t have to bottle and age the vinegar at all – it can be used straight from the crock, as long as you don’t mind a fairly rustic brew. Otherwise, if you plan to bottle and store it, you’ll need to pasteurize it.
  • To pasteurize the vinegar, Kim places it in a glass [non-reactive] container and microwaves it for approximately 6-10 minutes. You can also do this in a non-reactive pot on the stove top. In any case, the temperature of the vinegar must reach at least 140F to sterilize the product, and should not exceed 160F. Generally, it should be held at that temperature for 10 minutes.
  • Fill the bottles as full as possible, since you now want to exclude oxygen, and tightly cork them. Store them at room temperature, away from sunlight. Don’t use metal caps, as vinegar will erode them. Lay down the bottles to further age for a few months; the vinegar’s sharpness will continue to mellow and its flavors develop even more complexity.
  • Note: You don’t have to bottle all the vinegar at once. Simply draw off enough for a bottle every now and then, and continue to replenish the vinegar in the barrel by adding a little [leftover] wine now and then, keeping the container about two-thirds full. (Some folks out there suggest using a turkey baster to gingerly add the wine underneath the mother – as disturbing it may cause it to sink – however, Kim simply pours her wine straight into the crock and that has worked fine for her).

Potential Problems and Solutions

If, after following the general directions above, you have one or more of the following problems, try the following solutions:

Nothing happened:
The wine you used may have been heavily treated with sulfites, which act as stabilizing and preserving agents; try diluting it with about one third water. Alternatively, you might try a different wine, preferably red, from one of the several organic wineries of France or California; these wines contain no sulfites.

Nothing happened (again):
Your unpasteurized vinegar may not have contained viable bacteria.

The vinegar doesn’t smell good:
Your bacteria may not have had enough oxygen. Try pouring the vinegar back and forth from one container to another several times, then wait a couple of days. Also, make sure you cover containers only with cheesecloth or cotton, and that the openings are fairly large. The mother needs oxygen to convert the wine to vinegar.

Your once-potent vinegar has weakened:
After a while, bacteria convert acetic acid to carbon dioxide and water; you must draw off vinegar from time to time and add new wine, so the vinegar has alcohol on which to work.

Based on Experience

Some suggest diluting the wine with water before adding it to the crock – why?
It has to do with the level of acidity – it’s thought that too much of it can kill the mother. Kim’s never diluted her wine and so far, so good. If the final product is too strong for your taste, you can dilute it then with some water [or more oil - when making a vinaigrette].

The vinegar smells like nail polish remover/furniture polish:
While some articles and books instruct to throw out the vinegar if this happens, Kim says she just leaves it alone for a while. This happened with some of her vinegar and after two months of letting it sit (without feeding), the polish smell dissipated and it smelled like vinegar and was usable.

Can you use tainted wine?
While some articles and books also warn against using corked (tainted) wine, Kim has successfully made vinegar from corked wine. It tasted fine; she has consumed it and she’s still very much alive.

Is it possible to over-feed the mother?
Yes. It’s best to add a glass or two (or three) here and there, rather than dumping a whole bottle of wine into the crock. The mother may need a little time to “digest” the alcohol and convert it to vinegar; If you have a lot of leftover wine, consolidate them into one or two (or however many) bottles, cork them and use them to feed the mother every other week or so.

What about these ceramic crocks/wooden barrels with spouts or spigots attached – are they helpful/necessary to draw out the vinegar?
Not really. The spigot on her crock just gets clogged with mother over time. A glass or ceramic jar or wooden barrel with a wide mouth are what work for her.

Can you mix red and white wines in the crock?
Well, there’s no consensus on that; some say don’t ever do that and others have said you can. She generally keeps her reds, red and whites, white. Experiment and see what happens.

For Further Reading

Diggs, Lawrence J. Vinegar. The User-Friendly Standard Text Reference & Guide to Appreciating, Making, and Enjoying Vinegar. Authors Choice Press, 2000.

Romanowski, Frank, Mark F. Larrow, and Gail Canon. Making Vinegar at Home, Revised Edition. Beer & Winemaking Supplies, Inc., 1984, 2000.

Hamilton, William L. The Good Mother. New York Times Magazine 14 April 1991: 59-60.

Some Online Resources for Purchasing Mother of Vinegar Here in the US

Beer and Wine Making Supplies
Leeners
West Boylston Home Brew Emporium

A few of Kim’s lovely homemade vinegars:

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Bonne chance et Bon appétit!

 

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44 Responses to “Word to Your Mother – How to Make Wine Vinegar”

  1. Kate Says:

    Years ago I saw a Nigella Lawson show where she confessed to salvaging the undrunk leftovers in her dinner or party guests’ wine glasses. She collected them in ziplock baggies and kept them in the freezer for cooking. Seemed like a good solution so you have good wine for cooking without having to open a bottle just for a recipe and prevents waste of good wine!

  2. holybasil Says:

    Kate- Yeah, I saw that episode too. I did as she did and after a while, I had a freezer half-full of wine slushies. It’s a great idea to have a few stashed away, though.

  3. Mom Says:

    Great! I want to do this….we should have a mother sharing party!

  4. Warda Says:

    Bonjour Christine, first of all, I cannot imagine how much it took to right down all those precious informations. I bet you needed a pick-me-ip after you were done.
    I can’t get out of my head the smell of your red wine wine. It was just like the one my grandfather used to make.
    I have an Eden Vinegar and I noticed the other day the mother at the bottom of the bottle. How can we get it out. Just pouring it when the bottle is empty?

    Happy Sunday my friends! Bisous

  5. holybasil Says:

    Motherskitchen- Oh great idea :) When my vinegar is producing enough mother, I’ll be sure to share the love!
    Tiens, Warda- You have mother too?!! Well, I think when the bottle gets low, you can pour the whole thing into a crock, add wine and cover with cheesecloth. Then in a few months, we can compare vinegars :)

  6. White On Rice Couple Says:

    I hear ya on wasting food. If I left even 1/2 bite left on my plate, my mother would remind me of the poverty stricken families in the world. But now when it comes to wine, I even more passionate about, especially when I’m the one buying cases of it for parties. There are times when we forget to cork up a bottle from a big dinner party and then it goes bad. You made it so clear on how to do this ( it’s like a book!) . It’s gonna come in real handy for our future left over wine. Let’s recycle and go green in 2008 !

  7. gottabkd Says:

    Wow, I think everyones parents used the same tactic, only mine were in Biafra (??)
    Anywhoo, I have a bottle of organic apple cider vinegar (a teaspoon a day is supposed to balance your PH levels or something) and it has one mother of a mother at the bottom. LOL.
    I can’t wait to try to make my own vinegar and will bookmark this recipe for sure :)

    Your pics are great as usual, and love the black background behind each one (with the basil in bottom right corner).
    How do you accomplish this? Would love to pick your brain a bit, but don’t want to do it here as the talk is all food :)
    If you’d like to share some secrets, email me OK?
    Thanks

  8. Stefani Says:

    That is so fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I’d love to try it some time!

  9. charlotte s Says:

    wow! this post is so interesting! i will be on the lookout for a “mother” and am excited to try this!

  10. jeremy Says:

    neat, I knew mother’s could do anything.

  11. lindsay Says:

    i’m certainly inspired!!
    my boyfriend’s been obsessing about beer making and bread baking.. this sounds like something i could take up to add to the crazy household madness!

  12. holybasil Says:

    WhiteOnRice – My mom would remind me of the starving people in Viet Nam, and it worked. Yes, I’m all for going green :)
    Gottabkd – Thanks. Let me know how it goes.
    Stephani – Thanks. I’m glad you found it fascinating – I sure did.
    Charlotte – Thanks and please let me know if you do and how it goes for you.
    Jeremy- ha – yes, indeed :)
    Lindsay- Thanks – beer making and bread baking both involve yeast. I think vinegar would fit right in to your crazy but fun madness :)

  13. foodhoe Says:

    This is a great post! I bought a bottle of Braggs with the mother and my husband recoiled from the bottle and refused to eat anything made with the putrefied acid… I ended up throwing it out, if I had only known! Anyways this is very inspiring and looks like a great way to use up wine leftovers. I am getting another bottle of braggs…

  14. Angie Says:

    How cool! I am so going to try this! Thanks for taking the time to write all of this . . . a ton of information here! Oh, and also – hello from another Michigander. : )

  15. Michnguyen Says:

    This reminds me of making vinegar (I thinnk it called dấm chuối) by banana, rice wine, and mother. It is kind of hard to find mother around here (Detroit area)

  16. Shayne Says:

    great post and so much information. Maybe some day I can get some mother too. Now see what you have started soon houses all over the state are going to be making vinegar with their left over wine.

  17. Maribeth Says:

    I made basil basalmic vinegar last summer when my basil was growing like crazy. I left in the pantry and this week, I took out to strain and found a MOTHER of a mother. It’s beautiful. Your information is most helpful. My husband and I were wondering how to make more vinegars. We are big foodies and we LOVE to cook and experiment with food, so now we are going to try vinegar! Thanks for all the information.

  18. holybasil Says:

    Maribeth –
    Good luck with your vinegar :)

  19. Grace Says:

    Thanks – these instructions are really clear. Looking forward to doing this.

  20. Julie Says:

    Thanks for all the wonderful pictures and info! I had heard Kim talking about vinegar-making on The Splendid Table on NPR, so after we opened a red Burgundy that was going through a weird phase (no, not corked) I decided I had to try to salvage it through vinegar-making. After buying vinegar with mother online, I have the Burgundy and another jar of white (Pinot Grigio) that have been going for close to a month now, and have a nice filmy mother forming on the red. I was glad to see that my “oil slick” mother was normal.

    Seems like there’s a lot of MI interest in vinegar-making…I’m 20 minutes north of A2 and would be willing to participate in a “mother swap” if things develop as I hope they will (et moi aussi, je parle français!).

  21. Lorenza Gigli Says:

    Per fare l’aceto occorre metà bottiglia di vino un pò vecchio dove si spezzano 10 o12 spaghetti crudi .Si aspetta per circa 15 /20 giorni , si è formata la madre ed a quel punto si possono aggiungere tutte le rimanenze di vino che immediatamente diventano aceto. Ciao ciao

  22. Austin Says:

    I have been making wine vinegar for a while but have not tried to specialize in the wine type. To date, I have been using any red wine remnants I’ve encountered. I will have to try the white wine vinegar next.

    One technique I use is to store my vinegar making jar in the cabinet above the fridge. Since the refrigerator runs year round and puts off heat as a natural process, this cabinet stays more consistently warmer even during the winter months when I drop the temp at night. As you say, warm and dark!

  23. Dana Says:

    I just found a mother growing in a bottle of wine vinegar and decided to make vinegar. Thanks for all the information, I’ll check back in if I learn anything that might be helpful to others. I love the idea of keeping the jar above the ‘fridge. At last something useful to do in those stupid cabinets!

  24. Ellen Says:

    This morning as I was making tea, Jeff is sleeping in, I saw the bottle of Balsamic with a lil’ mold floating on top. Hmmmm.

    Now I knew that was “Mother”; so my tea and I sat at the computer and typed in, “How to make Vinegar”. I chose this site first as it was dated Feb. 11, 2008, my sister’s birthday. She led me to the right place!

    Agreed and agreed. Lovely picture, wonderful text. I am going to give ‘er a go!

    And as a kitchen designer, those awkward impossible over the refer cabs, will now have a better pupose in life! (I guess I’ll need to buy a step stool to check in on the Mothers!!)

  25. Teresa Says:

    Help! My mother sunk to the bottom of the cask. What can I do? Teresa

  26. Gilead Says:

    Hi, and thanks for the straightforward instructions. One question — when you say “The following day, add the starter,” do you mean the whole bottle of Braggs, just a tablespoon, or somewhere in between? Or should it me some sort of ratio to the amount of wine you’re starting with?

  27. paul Says:

    love your site and pictures
    having fun with mothers in livonia
    please sign me up for mother exchange
    and i will bring a few

  28. Carol Smith Says:

    Hi Kim,
    How can you tell if the mother has gone bad. Mine sunk to the bottom. It is not laying totally flat but kind of at an angle. Should I take off vinegar if the mother is at the bottom and nothing has formed on the top but it taste and smell fine? I am so very new at this.

  29. MK Says:

    Hey –

    Haven’t heard from you in a million years! My vinegar mother is dead…I think. She has yeast growing on top.

  30. Anna Says:

    My red wine vinegar smells like feet. We used home-made wine as the starter–could this be the cause? Is it still edible?

  31. Jo Says:

    My mom use to use the mother in black tea it was suppose to have anti cancer properties. If it got some mold she would wash it off.

  32. Horace Says:

    I purchased some mother from a wine/beer making store and started adding cabernet and merlot of reasonable quality to the mother. The wine turned into a very strong vinegar but it was quite sour tasting with no body. Not too palatable. Does the mother starter that is used determine the quality and taste of the vinegar?

  33. fruit fly Says:

    i recently learned bout making wine vinegar thanks to this page.i was already making wine, so its working out well.its great to have a healthy raw organic vinegar.

  34. Arlene Barber Says:

    I live in Otsego, Michigan~ between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. I wouldn’t want to go very far to get it, but if anyone near me would be willing to gift me with some vinegar mother, I’d love to try this.

  35. rob Says:

    Hi, Great site! I have a question. Up above you wrote: “Is it possible to over-feed the mother?
    Yes. It’s best to add a glass or two (or three) here and there, rather than dumping a whole bottle of wine into the crock. The mother may need a little time to “digest” the alcohol and convert it to vinegar.” When beginning the vinegar process the mother is dumped into nothing but undiluted wine from the bottle, exactly what you are recommending not to do. So how should one start the vinegar process: dilute the wine with water or not?

  36. kare a Says:

    i am a wine importer and on friday i have some wine bottles
    from sampling accounts.
    my grandma from italy always made vinegar out of wine.
    but was afriad to do this myself …
    until i read your recipe but i rember grandma’s sometime added fresh herbs is this okay to do and how long would iy keep
    also i think she put a little pasta in the mother bottle?

  37. Vic Says:

    Thanks for this information. Your photography and descriptions work.

  38. JAMES J. Says:

    I WOULD LIKE TO FIND OUT HOW TO MAKE THE MOTHER
    FOR MAKING VINEGAR, SO FAR EVERTHING ADVISES ME HOW TO MAKE VINEGAR USING THE MOTHER, BUT WHERE DO
    I FIGURE OUT HOW TO MAKE THE MOTHER STARTER. COULD YOU HELP I DIN’T WANT TO BUY IT AND I DON’T HAVE A FRIEND TO GIVE ME A PIECE. PLEASE HELP. THANKS

  39. Beth Says:

    I found a mother on the bottom of a store bought bottle of balsamic vinegar. Can I use that to make my own red wine vinegar, or will it impart strange flavors? Thanks for this article, I’m excited to try making vinegar!

  40. Denise Says:

    I’ve got chardonnay wine vinegar going very successfully, with your instructions. It seems to be a bit strong and sharp tasting, though. What is the best way to dilute vinegar – water, or…..?

  41. Nepal_Chef Says:

    For Beth — Balsamic, as you know, is just aged red wine vinegar in which herbs & spices have been steeped. (Actually you steep then age.) You can safely rinse the mother. But trace flavors from the balsamic mother would be slight and make your red wine vinegar very delicious and unique.

  42. Kim Adams Says:

    Hi – I am updating my original vinegar site and came back here to look at Holy Basil’s report to see what has transpired since she came to my home and I gave her my mother to start her own vinegar. I’m sorry to see that it appears that she is no longer monitoring this site. Its last update was June, 2008.

    One thing that struck me is Nepal_Chef’s response to Beth on balsamic. It is just plain wrong. Sorry Chef! That is not how balsamic is made. It’s bizarrely and completely wrong!!!

    There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Do some due diligence and get the facts.

    Cheers,
    Kim Adams

  43. The Journey Goes On Says:

    Hi, I do think your web site could possibly be having web browser compatibility issues. When I take a look at your website in Safari, it looks fine however when opening in I.E., it’s got some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Aside from that, great site!


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