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Every week, a DIY expert spares us a trip to the grocery store and shows us how to make small batches of great foods at home.
This week, Cindy Pawlcyn shows us how to make red wine vinegar at home. Cindy is the author of the brand new book, Cindy’s Supper Club: Meals from Around the World to Share with Family and Friends.
Living here in the Napa Valley, we are surrounded by great wines, vineyards and winemakers. We often have leftover wine - some great, some not so great - cluttering up our counter. I can’t use leftover wine in cooking fast enough, so I turn to my vinegar crock and recycle the bottles.
I got my first copy of Simple French Food by Richard Olney in the mid-1970s. (The book has a section called “Miscellaneous Thoughts.” (Oh, how often I have miscellaneous thoughts! He describes in beautiful detail how to set up a “vinaigrier” using a wine barrel. The advantage of an oak wine barrel is the wonderful flavor of oak. The disadvantage is that a barrel takes up a lot of space. I highly recommend Richard’s book as further reading.
Making vinegar is really very simple. For the science-minded, it involves facilitating the secondary fermentation of bacteria in an already fermented product. This second fermentation converts alcohol to acetic acid.
To make vinegar, you just need a good “mother,” and some wine to feed her. My vinegar mother was started in 1979 when I moved to the Napa Valley. It’s been going strong and has started many a pot since then. I got my mother culture from a great bottle of French red wine vinegar, but if you have a friend who makes vinegar you can take a portion of his or her mother culture and it will grow again for both of you. Be sure the vinegar is unpasteurized.
Vinegar mother is probably one of the most unattractive things on earth. It’s gelatinous, slimy, and has turned my pot the color of dark red wine. The aroma is quite sharp when you first uncover it, but as it ages it becomes fruitier, with apple and “winery” as the two main scents. “Winery” is a scent you discover from living among them. (Another local aroma comes at the end of crush, when all the grape skins, stems and seeds are composting. It smells a bit like an old college bar in the morning.)
I use a ceramic crock, but a large canning jar will also work. The crock or jar needs to be in an open space with enough oxygen to fuel the fermentation. I cover my crock with a ceramic plate but you can also use cheesecloth or muslin and keep it in place with a string or rubber band. A fine weave will keep those pesky fruit flies out.
It takes ten days to two weeks for the mother culture to form. At that point you can strain off vinegar or continue to add wine as you have it. To stop bacteria from growing in whatever you’re using the vinegar in, you’ll need to pasteurize the vinegar first. Simply heat it at about 160 degrees Fahrenheit (medium heat) for five minutes. It should simmer and steam but not boil. Cool, strain and bottle.
Herb vinegar is amazing in meat marinades, salads with meat, soups and sauces. It’s truly a chef’s secret ingredient as a few drops can brighten a soup or sauce like nothing else.
For herb vinegar, I pick one to one-and-a-half cups of whatever herb is looking the best in my garden. One of my favorites is flowering thyme. Wash and spin-dry the herb. Place it in a clean half-gallon canning jar and reserve. Warm a quart and a half of the basic vinegar and pour it over the herbs. Cover with cloth and store in a dark place for two weeks. Strain, bottle and label.
You can try homemade vinegar in some of the dishes from my new cookbook: Cindy’s Supper Club: Meals from Around the World to Share with Family and Friends. (Ten Speed Press, May 15, 2012). Hearts of Palm, Arugula and Butter Lettuce Salad (Brazil, page 35), Mignonette for Oysters with Irish Soda Bread (Ireland, page 90), Forager’s Salad (Ireland, page 94), and Winter Double-Beet Salad (Greece, page 120) are all great showcases for homemade red wine vinegar.
Photos by Briana Forgie