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How to Make Your Own Vinegar

By THLord Donal O'Brien,

What is vinegar?

Vinegar is a sour liquid that is made by the fermentation of any of numerous dilute alcoholic liquids into a liquid containing acetic acid. Vinegar may be produced from a variety of materials: grapes or apples (wine or cider vinegar), malted barley or oats (malt vinegar), and industrial alcohol (distilled white vinegar). There are also vinegars made from beer, sugars, rice, and other substances. As a commercial product, however, vinegar was probably first made from wine (French vin, "wine"; aigre, "sour"). The word alegar was used at one time to denote vinegar made from beer or ale.

Vinegar is a natural by-product of making alcoholic beverages. Its discovery was made in different parts of the world independently, most probably accidentally.

How was vinegar used?

Vinegar has been used as a condiment, a preservative, a medicine, an antibiotic, a detergent and many other uses throughout the ages. The Assyrians used vinegar to cure earaches and as part of a mouth wash. Egyptians were served vegetables covered in oil and vinegar. Roman soldiers and gladiators drank a diluted vinegar beverage called posca. Cleopatra is said to have dissolved a great pearl in a plate of vinegar and drank it because of a bet with Marc Antony.

According to Pliny, Roman miners used fire and vinegar to break up rock. Legend says that only sand, urine, or vinegar extinguished Greek fire. Vinegar is mentioned in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. Jewish food laws define when vinegar is kosher or not. Sixteenth century Sicilian monks in the city of Palermo used vinegar as part of a mummification process for the dead displayed in the Capuchin Catacombs.

Hippocrates recommended vinegar as a healing agent to be used externally and internally. He detailed a vinegar preparation (including shaving of lotus, lees of oil, and raw tar-water) for cleaning ulcerations and wounds. He also recommends oxymel, a combination of honey and vinegar, for constipation and shortness of breath.

Jabir Ibn Haiyan (721-815 CE) is considered the foremost Islamic chemist of his time. He was known for the distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid. The well-known Arab doctor and scientist Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980–1037 CE) laid the foundations of modern scientific medicine. He wrote in his famous book, Al-Qanoon fit Tibb (the Canon of Medicine), that vinegar is a powerful clotting agent. He also said that it is useful externally for inflammations, carbuncles, burns, and headaches. Taken internally it was an appetizer and a digestive aid.

Vinegar was used as part of herbal medicines up to the modern day. Vinegar has been used as a mordant to fix fabric dyes and as an ingredient to a calligrapher's ink. And it has been an ingredient of food and drink since the mists of time.

The Orleans Method and Balsamic Vinegar

The earliest method for making vinegar was to leave wine or beer in an open container and hope that it would turn acidic rather than simply turning sour. Eventually the French developed a more sophisticated way for producing quality vinegar. They left wine in wooden casks for two to six months where it slowly turned into vinegar. It was then filtered into other casks and left to mature for a period of months or years. This became known as the Orleans method after the place where this technique was perfected.

Good quality wines were used to make good quality vinegar and the practice continues to this day. Red wine vinegar is left to mature for a longer time than white wine vinegar. Vinegars made by the slow Orleans method are as complex and flavorful as fine wines and just as expensive.

Balsamic vinegar is one example of a vinegar made using the Orleans Method. Balsamic vinegar is noted for its brown color, intense fruity aroma, and exquisite sweet-and sour flavor. True aceto balsamico vinegar is produced only in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy that stretches from the Adriatic Sea to within a few miles of the Gulf of Genoa.

The first literary references to balsamic vinegar date back to the year 1046. In that year Emperor Henry III went from Northern Europe to Rome. On the way, while stopping in Piacenza, he asked Marquis Bonifacio, father of Countess Matilde di Canossa, for a small cask of the famous laudatum acentum. In 1100 a description of a product called balsamo, or balm, fits the essence of acto balsamico; it was used only for medicinal purposes, although there were rumors of its aphrodisiac qualities.

Balsamic vinegar begins as the unfermented juice (the must) of Trebbiano (mainly), Lambrusco, Ancellotta, Sauvignon and Sgavetta grapes. The must is boiled down to reduce the water content. The must is then allowed to ferment using the yeast that occurs naturally on grape skins. The fermented must is then combined with active vinegar bacteria cultures to convert the alcohol to acetic acid. The vinegar is then placed in the first of a series of progressively smaller wooden casks, called "batteria". The "batteria" may be made of juniper, oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, locust, alder, or ash.

Traditionally, this aging process occurs in the attic of the house, with the women of the household responsible for its care. The alternating heat and cold of the seasons are essential to the slow changes wrought in the vinegar. With an evaporation rate of about 10 percent each year, 100 liters of must will become only 15 liters of vinegar twelve years later. When the flavor is found acceptably intense, the vinegar is sealed in a final small wooden cask.

How is vinegar made?

Vinegar is made in two easy steps. The first step is to obtain an alcoholic beverage such as wine, beer, or hard cider. The second step is to introduce Acetobacter to the alcohol base. Acetobacter is a strain of bacteria that reacts with air at the surface of alcohol to consume the ethanol and output acetic acid. After the alcohol is turned to vinegar, you can age and/or flavor the vinegar to improve its taste.

Most homemade vinegars are made with commercial wines. Unfortunately for the vinegar maker, most commercial wines contain sulfites. These are organic sulfur compounds that are added to wine to act as a preservative, as a way to prevent oxidation, and to prevent infection from wild yeasts, molds, and bacteria. Sulfites present a problem in making vinegar since they kill off the Acetobacter bacteria. Fortunately the sulfites will dissipate and disappear if you let the wine you want to convert to vinegar sit exposed to air for twenty-four hours.

The percentage of acetic acid in homemade vinegar is directly related to the percentage of alcohol initially used to make the vinegar. The ideal base to make vinegar should contain 5% to 7% alcohol by volume. Wine containing 10% to 14% alcohol by volume should be diluted to 5% to 7% alcohol by volume. High alcohol content can kill the vinegar Acetobacter culture. You should try to avoid the use of heavily mineralized or chlorinated water to dilute the alcohol since off flavors from the minerals or chemicals will be imparted to the vinegar.

The vinegar maker can introduce Acetobacter to the alcohol base in a couple of ways. The bacteria travel on the wind, so exposing wine to air provides a chance that the bacteria will take up residence and start making vinegar. A more consistent way of introducing the bacteria to the alcohol base is to add either a small amount of active homemade vinegar or a piece of mother of vinegar.

The vinegar bacteria will consume alcohol and product acetic acid. The Acetobacter will also produces cellulose cells that form a leathery and somewhat gelatinous film on the surface of the alcoholic liquid. This film is called the mother of vinegar. Home brewing and winemaking suppliers often offer mother as vinegar starters. They sell red and white wine vinegar cultures, as wells as mother obtained from malt, cider, and mead. There is no difference between the varieties. Any culture may be combined with any type alcohol to produce vinegar.

It takes roughly one week to convert 1% of alcohol to 1% acetic acid. Temperature plays an important role in the conversion process. Very low (under 45 degrees F), very high (over 95 degrees F), and fluctuating temperatures can slow the process. Temperatures between 70 to 90 degrees F are ideal. The vinegar bacteria die when the temperature reaches 140 degrees F.

Vinegar should be stored in capped containers made of glass, ceramic, wood, enamel, or stainless steel. Plastic containers can be used, though some plastics react poorly to the acidity of the vinegar. Stored vinegar will stay in excellent condition almost indefinitely if it is pasteurized. To pasteurize, heat the vinegar before pouring it into sterilized bottles. Another way is to pour the vinegar into a bottle and then place the bottle in a hot water bath. In either case, make sure that the temperature of the vinegar reaches at least 140 degrees F and not over 160 degrees F. Hold the vinegar at this temperature for at least 30 minutes. Use a cooking thermometer to ensure the correct temperature is met. Vinegar should be stored at room temperature out of direct sunlight.

Problems Making Homemade Vinegar

Vinegar Making Equipment

Basic Vinegar Recipes

Donal's Vinegar Recipes

Food recipes using vinegar


Donal O'Brien has granted permission for this article to appear on the Dreiburgen web site, 26 Sep 2003.

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