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DIY Vinegar Is Worth the Wait

By Shawn Cunningham
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

It was a great party, and the stacks of dishes in the kitchen attest to that. Washing up, you work your way through the plates, serving dishes and flatware and then come to several open bottles still containing some of that wonderful Spanish red wine you recently discovered. What a waste, you think.

Not necessarily.

Though you aren't going to drink the leftover wine, it could have a second life. With a little time, leftover wine can become some of the best vinegar you've ever tasted -- or cooked with. Better, in fact, than all but the most expensive bottles in the priciest shops.

That's because nearly all of the vinegar available in stores is made through very rapid industrial processes that have the advantage of speed and high volume but produce thin and comparatively flavorless results. Vinegar made in a matter of hours may be profitable, but rich, complex, full-bodied vinegar that reflects the quality of the wine (or beer or cider) from which it was made takes time. In other words, it takes the Orleans method.

Named for the city of Orleans, France, it is far, far slower, more labor-intensive and less profitable. That's why, even in Orleans, there are scarcely any traditional producers left. Luckily, however, you can do it at home. All you need is a suitable container, some wine, beer or hard cider and a "mother of vinegar."

The mother is actually a culture of acetobacter, a bacterium that eats alcohol and excretes acetic acid, a.k.a. vinegar. The more alcohol it eats, the stronger the acidity of what it excretes. Wine, with its typical 12 to 15 percent alcohol level, is ideal and makes a rich, high-acid vinegar. Sherries and other fortified wines make good vinegars, but when the alcohol level gets up to about 20 percent, the bacteria can be inhibited. Higher than that and they just die.

Just as with cooking with wine, the better the wine that goes in, the better the vinegar that comes out, with one exception. Very lush, fruit-forward wines (big zinfandels, merlots and cabernets) can make vinegar that's overbearingly rich. Medium-bodied, medium fruit wines are best.

The Orleans method is an aerobic process, meaning it needs air. Choose a container that lets air in and keeps fruit flies out. If you want to make a continuous fresh supply, you'll need a place to pour the wine in at the top and a spigot at the bottom to drain off vinegar. (A wood spigot is best because the acid often reacts with metals and corrodes them.) You can order a container -- ceramic or plastic, or a wood barrel -- from a winemaking supply house. The same company can set you up with a mother of vinegar (red wine, white wine, malt or cider), and, much as with a sourdough starter, if you take care of it, you should never need another.

Your new mother's two enemies are sulfites -- the preservatives found in wines -- and the chlorine in tap water. Those will inhibit or even kill the acetobacter. Make sure the wine has been open to the air for several hours or even days so the preservatives can break down, and use unchlorinated spring water, and you should have no problems.

If you use a wood spigot, fill the container with water and leave it in the sink for the day. The spigot will expand to keep the vinegar-to-be from leaking. If you don't seat the spigot, you might be stuck with a sticky, leaky mess.

When everything is ready, simply pour the mother into your container along with some water and wine. Mothers often come in eight-ounce portions. Use eight ounces of mother to eight ounces of water and 16 ounces of wine. The water cuts the alcohol level to give the little critters a start. (For cider or malt, use eight ounces of mother to 24 ounces of cider and no water, since the alcohol level is rarely higher than 6 or 7 percent.) Put the container in a warm place (acetobacter likes 75 to 85 degrees) and let it work.

The process takes several weeks to months, and you can use a test kit (available at winemaking supply stores or online) to see if your vinegar is ready. You are looking for a 7 percent acidity for really strong red wine vinegar. Other types may be less tart. Once you have a working "vinaigrier," you can add a little wine whenever there's a leftover glass and drain some off whenever you need it for cooking, or you can drain all but 10 or 15 percent of the vinegar and bottle it, using the portion remaining to start a new batch.

Some people like to pour their vinegar through a coffee filter to get rid of precipitates. You also might want to pasteurize the vinegar by heating it to 160 degrees for a few minutes in a nonreactive pan. That kills the acetobacter bacteria, but it is not strictly necessary because they will die when they run out of alcohol to convert. (Other germs can't live in such a high-acid environment, either, which is why vinegar is used as a preservative.)

All this might sound like an awful lot of trouble to go to for vinegar, but actually the process is low-maintenance. Sometimes the hardest part is remembering that you have a batch working. Mastering the use of a test kit can be a bit of a challenge, but overall the work is pretty easy. And the results are amazing.

Homemade red wine vinegar is rich, fruity and full-bodied. Allow it to mellow for a few weeks or a month after bottling, and it becomes noticeably smooth. Although it can be quite strong, it is not sharp or unpleasant. Use it in salad dressings, as a bread dip, as part of a marinade and in cooking. But remember that recipes that call for vinegar are geared to less-flavorful products, so adjust accordingly.

Shawn Cunningham is a freelance writer who owns Pardonfield Farm in Chester, Vt., with his wife, Cynthia.

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