By Kate Payne
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
My first time making vinegar was completely an accident. In my early years of discovering mason jars and their handy pantry presence, I’d decanted the tail end of a bottle of red wine into a wide-mouth pint jar and stuck it on a pantry shelf where, after about two or three months, I rediscovered it. A pungent aroma (distinctly vinegar) filled my nostrils and I pitched away the liquid thinking it was probably dangerous.
Now I know how to make wine vinegar, and the many reasons why you shouldn’t pitch it if you accidentally create it. (I bet my red wine vinegar was delicious.)
From French, vin aigre translates to “sour wine.” But wine isn’t necessarily needed to make vinegar—any alcoholic liquid will do. Fruit (or fruit scraps) and sugar water will turn into alcohol after about a week at room temperature. The bubbling seen during that week is the result of bacteria and wild yeasts metabolizing the sugars and producing carbon dioxide and alcohol (ethanol). Most bacteria and spoilers are unable to grow in alcoholic liquids, but Acetobacter bacteria are an exception. With the help of oxygen, Acetobacter bacteria metabolize the alcohol and convert it to acetic acid.
My first batch of apple-scrap vinegar came into being one September after I’d ordered a 40-pound box of apples from the Texas Panhandle. I sauced and buttered and peeled and cored my way through that seemingly endless supply like Lucy Ricardo—shuffling the many pounds that wouldn’t fit inside my refrigerator into the living room during the still-warm days, and out onto the back deck in the cool evenings. As the week progressed, the scraps from my various apple-box exploits were voluminous, and my compost bin’s finely balanced pH begged to avoid the mountain of acidic scraps. Lucky for me, Acetobacter bacteria thrive in warmer temperatures—preferring the higher end of a general range of 60 to 90 degrees—so Austin’s often-hot fall turned out to be an excellent time to make homemade vinegar.
Vinegar making is different from many other fermentation projects. Instead of skimming off surface microorganisms (Acetobacter bacteria live on the surface of burgeoning vinegar), regular stirring during both steps of the fermentation process is the key to success. Near the end of the last couple of weeks of fermentation, the liquid will become difficult to stir because the “mother”—a film that houses and forms a connected network of Acetobacter bacteria and other microbes—will form a thin layer across the top. Swirling the bowl periodically is sufficient then.
Since that apple-box adventure, I’ve made many batches of vinegar using both cooked scraps—from batches of apple butter and apple sauce—and raw, with great success. I’ve also used other fruits like juiced-and-spent cranberries, post-syrup rhubarb mush and too-ripe strawberries.
APPLE SCRAP VINEGAR
Makes 4½ cups
Cores and peels of 5 organic apples (more if apples are small)
¼ c. plus 2 T. sugar
6 c. filtered water, room temperature
Place the scraps in a large nonreactive bowl (avoid aluminum or galvanized steel). Dissolve the sugar in the water, pour the liquid over the scraps and cover the bowl with cheesecloth or a thin dishcloth. Stir the scraps daily to allow for bubbling, which accelerates the fermentation process, ensures even flavoring and prevents surface mold from growing.
After 1 week, strain the cores and peels from the apple water and pour the liquid back into the same bowl. Cover again and let sit for another 2 weeks—stirring every few days at first and then swirling the bowl gently once the “mother” forms on the surface of the liquid. The vinegar is finished when it smells and tastes like cider vinegar. Pour the vinegar (and the mother) into a repurposed glass apple juice bottle, or into smaller bottles and cap tightly. Store at room temperature, where it will keep indefinitely.