Homeade Vinegar

Among the many kitchen projects I've delved into lately, there's one that has me more excited than the rest. One of my favorite things about food and cooking is the still-somewhat-magical aspect of transformation. You take raw ingredients, add a little bit of heat or apply a chemical reaction, maybe both, and you wind up with something completely different than what you started with. Through the proper application of technique, the cook can take the simplest of items and transmute it into something wonderful. That's why the vinegar now quietly fermenting in my pantry has me so excited.

I first settled on the notion while reading Ideas in Food a while back. The method sounded like a perfect way to use leftover wine, and an interesting experiment in food chemistry. The only problem is, I don't often find myself with leftover wine because, well, I tend to drink my wine. Then, a few days ago, I realized that I had a bottle of Dolin Dry Vermouth, purchased for the preparation of a proper martini. I'd ended up working through only a couple of the classic cocktails (a bottle of Lagavulin got in the way) and leaving most of the bottle to stagnate in the fridge.

By the time I remembered it was there, it was a bit past the point of no return, no longer at the peak of its martini-making powers, and ready to be emptied, sadly, down the drain. It struck me that this lovely vermouth would make a perfect vinegar. I procured the necessary supplies, laying in a wide mouth glass jar, cheesecloth, and some live vinegar to act as a starter.

Basically, vinegar is an additional fermentation, whereby alcohol is converted to acetic acid by colonies of acetobacter aceti bacteria. These bacteria are readily found in nature and can, given enough time and proper conditions (moderate temperatures and darkness being important), convert pretty much any alcoholic base into vinegar. Of course, I'm not going to wait for nature to take its course on an open jar of Vermouth, so I'm helping it along.

To my jar, I added roughly equal parts Vermouth and live vinegar (vinegar which contains a "mother," an often gelatinous layer of bacteria and cellulose), bringing the alcohol content down a bit with a cup or so of spring water. The alcohol content of my Vermouth was a bit over 17 percent, which is just outside the comfort range of acetobacter. A layer of cheesecloth topped the jar, followed by the lid, loosely secured. Acetobacter can only do its job in the presence of oxygen, so you don't want your container airtight. The cheesecloth becomes important as the alcohol converts to vinegar, as it will attract flies.

Now, I wait, with the jar of developing vinegar stashed in the darkness of my pantry. Within a week, I should be able to detect obvious changes. PH will decrease, and the alcohol will become less and less apparent. A month or so down the line, I should be ready to strain my vinegar, bottle some for immediate use, and leave the rest to age and develop further.

I'm already plotting more varieties, branching out into alegars (the same process, but with beer as the alcohol base) and maybe some flavored vinegars. I'm thinking of a spiced vinegar made from mulled wine, perhaps, or champagne and Dijon mustard vinegar. There's even the possibility of using a lower-alcohol wine and enriching it with straight spirits. Think rum vinegar or vinegar heady with the bitter and herbal notes of Italian amari.

The possibilities are nearly endless and, once you've got a batch going, it's as easy as breaking off a hunk of mother, and dumping it in a new jar along with some booze. I'll report back on the process of my vinegar. In the meantime, why not make your own with that half-finished bottle of red languishing in your kitchen?

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall