Real fruit vinegar starts with wine

Real fruit vinegars are as flavorful as they are colorful.
Real fruit vinegars are as flavorful as they are colorful. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post; glassware from Crate and Barrel)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One of my favorite summer salads is a mix of mache, chunks of peaches, fresh goat cheese, candied pecans and a few drops of my best strawberry vinegar. A few drops are all that's required, because my vinegar smells like a bowl of ripe berries left in the afternoon sun. It tastes even better than that.

I am also about to run out of it.

I bought my vinegar three years ago on a trip to southern Sweden. Knowing that I like food, our Swedish friends took us to a small farm stand that sold fruits, vegetables, preserves and half a dozen fruit vinegars. In a perfect world, I would have bought one of every kind, which included lingonberry and raspberry. But after being reminded about zealous airport security officials, I satisfied myself with one bottle. Being sensible, it turns out, is not its own reward.

Real fruit vinegar isn't easy to come by. That surprised me, at least at first. Fermented foods of all kinds ranked high on this year's list of fashionable fare, and vinegar seems a natural for those do-it-yourself types who spend the summer pickling and preserving. But making real fruit vinegar turns out to be a lot harder than it seems.

"Taking vinegar and adding berries may seem like it's making vinegar," said Albert Katz, who makes wine and apple cider vinegar in California according to the traditional Orleans method. "But it's not."

The old-fashioned way to make fruit vinegar is to press fresh fruit juice and ferment it into wine. Next, the wine is made into vinegar by adding what is known as a mother. This ghostlike mass includes a special kind of bacteria, called acetobacters, that convert the alcohol into acetic acid. What's left is the essence of the fruit brightened by a tangy bite. The process takes from six months to three years.

Grapes traditionally are used for vinegar. But just about any fruit -- and some vegetables -- can be made into vinegar, as Erwin Gegenbauer has proved. At his craft vinegar brewery in Vienna, Austria, he makes about 40 kinds of fruit vinegars including apricot, blueberry, elderberry, sour cherry and tomato. Much as a jam maker preserves the flavors of summer, Gegenbauer told me he wants to "preserve the flavor of the fruit by turning it into vinegar."

Unfortunately, most fruit vinegars available in the United States are not made that way. Industrially manufactured wine vinegar, which can be made in just days, is used as a base. Next, producers add whole fruit or fruit purees and leave it to steep. Others take the heretical shortcut of adding a sugary fruit syrup or fruit extract to vinegar, then dropping a few berries or lemons into the bottle to make it look pretty. No wonder Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of gourmet food mecca Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., once called raspberry vinegar "the wine cooler of the vinegar world."

The prices reflect the craftsmanship. Wine-based fruit vinegars sell for between $15 and $50; a 16-ounce bottle of supermarket-brand cider vinegar sells for less than $1.50. That might be one of the reasons they are so hard to find. Without ever having tasted the depth and intensity of a true fruit vinegar, customers find it hard to understand why they should pay a premium. Gourmet stores that do stock real fruit vinegar often find that the bottles tend to hang around.

"It certainly doesn't fly off the shelf," said Hunter Fike, assistant general manager of DiBruno Bros in Philadelphia, which sells 8.5-ounce bottles of Jean Marc Montegottero's raspberry vinegar for $19.99."But we have a very high rate of success when we sample it. All you have to do to understand the difference is to taste it. It's so good you can sip it straight."

The intensity and vitality of fruit vinegars are reasons why Robert Weland, chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Penn Quarter, is trying to make them himself. He began in March with a batch of apple cider vinegar. He pressed the apples and used a wine yeast to ferment the juice. Then he added an unpasteurized vinegar to spark the conversion into alcohol. Weland stores the vinegar in open glass casks in what he calls the vinegar room, essentially a large closet near the restaurant office.

Fruit vinegars are one way to keep the flavors of the restaurant's extensive garden on the menu all year, Weland said. Down the road, they might be a way to save money. But at least for the first year, Weland's vinegar making is an experiment. He's using half of the apple vinegar to begin a strawberry vinegar. If all goes well, he'll start a new vinegar every three to four weeks; blackberry and apple infused with nasturtium are up next. Weland's first vinegar will appear on his menu this summer.

When it comes to making fruit vinegar, a common adage might apply: Don't try it at home. The process is long and laborious, and there are very few recipes or books for aspiring do-it-yourselfers. With a little persistence and the help of the Internet, you can buy a variety of excellent fruit vinegars (see "Where to find wine-based fruit vinegars"). Epicure Pantry offers about 15 kinds of Gegenbauer vinegars, including cucumber and quince flavors. It also sells Jean Marc Montegottero's fruit vinegars. Zingerman's stocks an aged cider vinegar from Quebec, which it uses to make the company's Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce, as well as a smooth, raisiny fig vinegar, made in northern Italy and Germany. Katz's Gravenstein cider vinegar, which is sold at Dean and DeLuca and online, is the most widely available. At $10 for a 375-ml bottle, it's also the most reasonably priced.

Once you secure some of the good stuff, use it sparingly and with respect. Don't add it to sauces; the heat will evaporate the fruity intensity. Instead, use it as you would salt and pepper, to season and finish a dish. A few drops will lend something special to carpaccio, steamed fish, even ice cream. As for salads, there's almost no need to mix great vinegar with oil. But if you do, use a ratio of 1 to 1 rather than 3 to 1.

"I've laughed for years when people ask me how to make a low-fat dressing," said Zingerman's Weinzweig. "The best one is called 'really good vinegar.' "


Cider Vinegar Chicken

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