Perhaps reading about all these exciting kinds of vinegar has whetted your appetite to make some of your own. Experimenting with flavors can be fun, and it's especially rewarding when you use your own vinegar in favorite dishes or give it as a gift.
You'll want to get exact directions from your local brewing supply store or university extension service. Be sure the directions you follow are tested and researched for safety to avoid food-borne illness. Take a look at this rundown of the general process to make apple cider vinegar to see if you're up to the task:
- Make apple cider by pressing clean, washed, ripe apples (fall apples have more sugar than early-season apples). Strain to make a clean juice and pour it into sterilized containers.
- Use yeast designed for brewing wine or beer (not baker's yeast) to ferment the fruit sugar into alcohol.
- Now let bacteria convert the alcohol to acetic acid. Leaving the fermenting liquid uncovered invites acid-making bacteria to take up residence (you might, however, want to place some cheesecloth or a towel over your container's opening to prevent insects, dirt, or other nasty items from getting into the mixture). Some vinegar brewers use a "mother of vinegar" (see box, above) as a "starter," or source of the acid-producing bacteria.
- Keep the liquid between 60 degrees and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the fermentation process; it will take three to four weeks to make vinegar. If you keep the liquid too cool, the vinegar may be unusable. If it's kept too warm, it may not form the mother of vinegar mat at the bottom of the container. The mother of vinegar mat signifies proper fermentation. Stir the liquid daily to introduce adequate amounts of oxygen, which is necessary for fermentation.
- After three to four weeks, the bacteria will have converted most of the alcohol, and the mixture will begin to smell like vinegar. Taste a little bit each day until it reaches a flavor and acidity that you like.
- Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth or coffee filter several times to remove the mother of vinegar. Otherwise the fermentation process will continue and eventually spoil your vinegar.
- Store in sterilized, capped jars in the refrigerator.
- If you want to store homemade vinegar at room temperature for more than a few months, you must pasteurize it. Do this by heating it to 170 degrees Fahrenheit (use a cooking thermometer to determine the temperature) and hold it at this temperature for 10 minutes. Put the pasteurized vinegar in sterilized containers with tight-fitting lids, out of direct sunlight.
- You can also make vinegar from wine; the process is similar.
Whether you start with homemade or store-bought vinegar, you can kick it up by adding flavorful herbs or spices. Garlic, basil, rosemary, and tarragon are herbs commonly added to white wine vinegar. Other herbs or fruits, such as raspberries, also can enhance vinegar's taste. These additions leave their flavors and trace amounts of healthy nutrients, too.
Herbal vinegars need to be carefully prepared to avoid contamination with potentially harmful bacteria. Most bacteria cannot exist in vinegar's acidic environment, but a few deadly ones can, so follow a few basic steps:
- Use only high-quality vinegars when creating flavor combinations. Typically, white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar are best for flavoring. Remember, though, that these vinegars contain trace amounts of protein that could give harmful bacteria an ideal place to live unless you prepare and store the vinegars properly.
- Wash your storage bottles and then sterilize them by completely immersing them in boiling water for ten minutes. Always fill the bottles while they are still warm, and be sure you have a tight-fitting lid, cap, or cork for each one.
- If you're using fresh herbs, there is a risk of harmful bacteria hitchhiking their way into the vinegar via the sprigs. Commercial vinegar processors use antimicrobial agents to sanitize herbs, but you probably won't be able to find these chemicals. University extension publications recommend mixing one teaspoon of bleach into six cups of water and dipping the fresh herbs into this solution. Then rinse the herbs thoroughly and pat them dry. This will minimize the possibility of any harmful bacteria making their way into the vinegar and will not affect the taste.
- Be sure your fresh herbs are in top-notch condition--bruising or decay indicates the presence of bacteria. If you harvest your own herbs, do so in the morning, when the essential oils are at their peak. Use three to four sprigs or three tablespoons of dried herbs per pint of vinegar. Mix it up a bit by adding some spices or vegetables, such as garlic or hot peppers. Thread garlic, peppers, or other small items on a skewer so you can remove them easily when you've infused enough flavors.
- To add fruit flavors to vinegar, thoroughly wash fruit, berries, or citrus rind. Use one to two cups of fruit for every pint of vinegar, but only the rind of one lemon or orange per pint. You can thread small fruits or chunks of fruit on a skewer and tie chopped rind in a small piece of clean cheesecloth to make removal easy.
- When you're ready to start mixing, place the herbs or flavoring in the sterilized, hot bottles. Heat the vinegar to 190 degrees Fahrenheit and then pour it over the herbs in the sterilized bottles. Heating the vinegar to 190 degrees Fahrenheit will prevent bacteria from forming and also help release the essential oils from the herbs, spices, or fruits.
- Put a tight-fitting lid on your container and allow the vinegar to stand in a cool, dark place for three to four weeks. When it has enough flavor, strain it through a cheesecloth or coffee filter several times until any cloudiness is gone.
- Discard the fruits, spices, or herbs and pour the filtered vinegar into newly sterilized containers. If you want to add a decorative herb sprig, sanitize it using the method described earlier. Seal tightly.
- Store the vinegar in the refrigerator for the best flavor retention; it will keep well for six to eight months. Unrefrigerated vinegar will keep its flavor for only two to three months. If left to look pretty on a sunny windowsill for more than a few weeks, use the vinegar only as decoration, not as food.
- You can use your herbal vinegar in nearly any recipe that calls for plain vinegar.
A Homemade Vinegar Caution
The acidity of homemade vinegar varies greatly. If you make your own vinegar, do not use it for canning, for preserving, or for anything that will be stored at room temperature. The vinegar's acidity, or pH level, may not be sufficient to preserve your food and could result in severe food poisoning. The pH level in homemade vinegar can weaken and allow pathogens, such as the deadly E. coli, to grow. Homemade vinegar is well suited for dressings, marinades, cooking, or pickled products that are stored in the refrigerator at all times. Now that you've got a taste for the possibilities in vinegar flavors, find out all the ways you can use vinegar in your kitchen. Go to the next page for some great ideas.