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:
Ever seen childbirth?
She had another crock of vinegar where the mother was not in the form of a gelatinous blob but more like an oil slick:
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:
And a closeup:
Another crock made with Sauternes:
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:
- 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:
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
A few of Kim’s lovely homemade vinegars:
Bonne chance et Bon appétit!