I get nervous when I notice my vinegar bottles nearing their inevitable lows. I keep on hand—or on my counter—four or five varieties. Always. Rice wine for braises and sautes, classic white for pickling, balsamic for salads, and apple cider for all of the above. I have a heavy hand and a limp wrist when it comes to its use. My roommates protest about the sharp smell, but I’m selfish and pay them no mind; I slip it into almost anything. Sometimes, I'll swill a glass of diluted apple cider vinegar in the morning. It makes me feel awake and I read somewhere online that it was good for my stomach. Or was it my skin? Something about vinegar, I find…invigorating.
It turns out, I’m late to the game...by a lot. According to Michael Harlan Turkell, vinegar’s use as a restorative stretches back into the Medieval period—the French used a vinegar infused with sage and rosemary to treat the bubonic plague. In his book, Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar, Turkell traces examples like these along a timeline that spans decades and traverses continents. For centuries—millennia, even—people have been extolling the benefits of vinegar and utilizing its distinct and bracing flavor.
Acid Trip reads like an ode to the liquid. In it, Turkell compiles recipes, memories, and dispatches from abroad that show vinegar’s unique appeal yet widespread application. The book’s pages impart: a recipe for apple black vinegar with milk that Turkell picked up in Kirishima, Japan; photos from an Austrian vinegar aging chamber, 400 oak barrels deep; a Filipino method for infusing vinegar with chilis by way of a New York-based chef. But for all the sampling he does, he espouses making one’s own vinegar at home above all else. A homemade batch, he says, is the purest, most alive vinegar one can access. The process is admittedly time consuming (more on that later), but he swears by it. I'm eager to believe. After years spent tasting and cooking with vinegars from around the world, and the communities that cultivate them, Turkell's expertise is hard to knock.
I talked to Turkell over the phone. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
There are two distinctly different kinds of vinegar: One is pasteurized (what we see at most supermarkets), so heat-treated to be shelf-stable, and the other is live acetobacter. You’re not gonna find much of that on the shelves right now. There are a few producers in this country, even in the world. Acetobacter is the bacteria that converts bacteria to acetic acid. So when you have something fermenting naturally, it’s there, it’s live, it’s still existing. The best way to get live vinegar is by making it yourself.
I knew a capful of vinegar was thrown into a pot when you want to poach an egg, but the question was: Why? Because it stabilizes the albumin, the whites. Knowing that, I could pull together a lot of interesting egg dishes.
A little vinegar is always beneficial to something that needs that little brightness or that little sourness or edge. It’s undervalued because it's underserved, because it's a product that many don't think is palatable on its own. I want people to get back to treating vinegar as a flavor.
Less is more: Get something that is very well-made and use it. I like smaller, artisan brands. Use it not sparingly, but correctly, and you’ll see its effect. It doesn't cost that much per the amount that you’re going to use per dish. For pickling, I understand you need a lot of volume; but when cooking, to have an effect, you don’t need much for it to actually come through.
Let’s say you’re an apple cider fan. Get good cider from a cidery, something that hasn’t been pasteurized. It usually needs a little more sugar or alcohol to get it going. Going through the whole process of making vinegar is a little arduous but long—not tedious, but takes time. There’s a commitment. But if you get good base products to start with, you’re going to get a better vinegar.
You pretty much let it sit out at room temperature. Cover it with a cheese cloth because fruit flies love vinegar. It takes at least a month, but usually in the two- to three-month range. Of course, it’s also a matter of how much volume or how much air space would be best. And use glass containers, because aceto acid will eat away at plastic.
I love braising things in vinegar or marinating in vinegar. It breaks down the proteins, so if you’re going to long-cook it or braise it, it’s going to become more supple. Or I take a big pork shoulder and braise that in apple cider vinegar. When you pull it you won’t have to put it in barbecue sauce afterwards. If you braise it in vinegar, it's permeating that meat and it’s beautiful.
The joy of making one's own vinegar at home is all about the ability to endlessly customize the result to your heart's desire. When fermenting at home, choose your fermenting liquid, then infuse or combine it with these flavorful additions. Here are a few combinations Turkell recommends:
Hot toddy vinegar: honey, water, whiskey, lemon juice, cloves
Apple pie vinegar: apple juice, water, cinnamon stick, brown sugar
Coconut rice vinegar: coconut water, Thai sticky rice, water
Red eye vinegar: maple syrup, water, coffee beans
Does Turkell have you running to brew your own batch? Tell us what you think.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now