Foster Child Of Silence And Slow Time

Last winter I wrote a post about my first attempts at making vinegar. I set a few types in motion on the kitchen counter, and over the course of the winter I added several more. Now, at the six-or-so month mark, I thought it would be helpful to check in on their progress to see how the different kinds have fermented, aged, and matured in that time. Given that it’s cider season, I’m eager to bottle as many of these as I can to make room for the next batches.

The gallon of apple cider is wonderful. If you’re at all interested in making vinegar, start with local, organic cider: buy half a gallon, pour it into a glass jar, cover the opening with cheesecloth and a rubber band (to keep flies out) and let it sit on the counter out of direct sunlight. Unlike pickles and wine, it likes heat; if your body is comfortable, it will be. What happens is that yeasts will colonize the cider and ferment all that sugar into alcohol until you have a hard, dry cider. At that point, acetobacteria will take over, metabolizing the alcohol into acetic acid, which is vinegar. All these other versions are just as easy, but represent slightly higher risks of failure. I’ve never had (organic) cider not turn into great vinegar. It will also provide you with abundant mother, with which you can jump-start other varieties. Adding some cider and mother helps give recalcitrant liquids the boost they need to undergo the desired transformation.

Check out my giant cider mother that grew in the gallon jar. It’s an inch thick and feels like firm rubber:

And organic really matters. I’ve had a few conversations with other vinegar geeks, and my unscientific survey seems to indicate that crops sprayed with unknown toxins can have a major negative effect on the natural processes that lead to vinegar. It’s a startling illustration of the potent and invisible pesticides that cover so much of the food in the world today. Use organic cider, wine, and other things. For example, the rosé vinegar that I started at the same time as the red is a moldy mess and will be thrown out. I used cheap-ass Spanish wine and clearly it had something in it which impeded the bacteria from doing their thing, allowing mold to take over. For the next batch I will use organic wine. It’s easy to tell the difference between mold and a healthy vinegar mother; the former is hairy and looks like mold and the latter is a milky disc that floats on the surface and slowly thickens. Poke it down from time to time to make sure the liquid gets enough oxygen.

Here’s the moldy rosé:

The maple is getting exciting, and I am duly excited by it. This was made from sap I got from a friend, the same source from which we made all the syrup back in March. I reduced the sap until it had approximately the sweetness of cider, and then added some mother and let it sit. I figured that the same process would take place, and it appears that I was right. There’s a delicate maple flavor under the sharp acidity that will work well in subtle dishes. It’s fully ready after six months, as is the new batch of black currant that I made using minimally treated juice from Connecticut. Like cider, this has worked for me every time.

Back in May, I went spruce-happy and I’ve written a few posts about all the things I did with those bright green tips. For vinegar, because I found the aroma so captivating, I tried two methods. The first involved steeping a quart jar full of tips in vodka, then diluting it to wine strength (about 10 percent) and adding mother. The other batch involved simmering the spruce in cider, then letting it do its normal thing. They’re both sprucey; the plain version has more of the resinous conifer quality and the cider jar has a strong underlying apple sweetness to the flavor (even though there’s no more sugar in it; one of the miracles of cider vinegar is that residual sweet apple flavor that hovers over powerful acidity). After some tasting, I made a blend of maple and both spruces, bottling some and leaving the rest to ferment some more. It’s quite good, with an elegant complexity that I hope will deepen with more age.

The red, made mostly from some not inexpensive Australian wine that I bought back at the very beginning of my serious wine-buying and can no longer tolerate, is coming along but has not arrived, even after seven months. There’s no hard and fast formula for aging; as Brother Victor-Antoine, my inspiration to begin all this alchemy, told me last year: “when it tastes like vinegar, it’s vinegar.” The red needs more time. The lilac, made by simmering flowers in cider like the spruce, is also ready, but is not as floral as I wanted it to be. I may add a few spritzes of rosewater to emphasize that quality. Once these are in bottle, it will be time to start new versions. I have to go pick sumac this week; the maple-sumac from last year is OK, but needs tinkering. Tune in come spring to see how that works out.

Now having this much vinegar on hand might seem insane, but hear me out. I hardly buy citrus any more; the spruce and sumac in particular substitute well for lime and blood orange respectively. And I use vinegar of one sort or another in almost everything I cook these days; like bitterness, I find sourness to be an under-appreciated flavor, which, used judiciously, enhances other flavors and makes food taste better by balancing all five tastes. Acidic wine is good with food, and acidic food is good with or without wine. Real vinegar is a living, vital food that makes flavors pop and is good for you to boot. It’s also the single easiest artisanal product in the world, since it basically makes itself. That’s all you need to know.

24 comments to Foster Child Of Silence And Slow Time

  • El

    Ah. You’ve got 3 more going than me, so I don’t think you have too much of the stuff. And I agree: a splash separates great dishes from good.

    Frankly, I love the process…and the acidic smell of my pantry.

  • Love this one- your kitchen must be stinky in all the best ways, lol.
    Ever since reading Paul Bertolli’s book I have been pining to get my own vinegars going. Need.More.Time.

  • Bravo. It is as easy as you say.
    Try a spoonful of mother in a bottle of Guinness. Months later, best malt vinegar ever.

  • What is “mother” made up of?

  • Peter

    El: I really can’t cook without it.

    Jackie: Honestly, it really doesn’t smell that much. I get whiffs of it over in its corner sometimes, but usually it’s not noticeable.

    CC: A bottle? A six pack makes just over half a gallon. I’ll buy some this weekend.

    Zoomie: Acetobacteria and cellulose. It’s cool stuff.

  • That apple cider vinegar reminds me so much of when I had a kombucha scoby. Then again, I seem to recall using apple cider vinegar with a mother to help grow it… I should investigate this more.

  • Kekogre

    Beautiful! Never worry about having too much vinegar, “too much” will just make you bolder about making vinegar reduction, which is so delicious on so many things but scarily spendy if you use store bought organic vinegar.

    Sub-ing spruce & sumac for lime & blood orange is the best tip I have read all week too. Thanks so much for this post.

  • Peter

    Carrie: They’re related, and Kombucha is super easy too; it also likes to just sit on your counter and do its thing.

    Kekogre: I love to reduce vinegars with maple syrup to make gastriques for duck and such. Thanks for reading.

  • I love that you have so many ,inds going. So cool!

  • Hmm…I can’t wait! Can I use Braggs ACV mother to start a vinegar? I’m off to do more research!!

  • Peter

    Janis: They are cool. I love them.

    Amber: Yes, you can give it a jump-start with that mother. But with (organic) cider you honestly don’t need it.

  • you can foster them but i’ll adopt. anytime.

  • There is nothing that excites me more than serious experimentation and pushing the envelope. I am playing with floral vinegars… back in the day they added flowers to white wine vinegar so I am doing the same… elderflower is amazing… next I’m trying Linden (a little touch of Proust). Elderflower vinegar was hugely popular in the 19th c England…. sort of like balsamic now. I can see why. Love it. AND… since I couldn’t get fresh flowers, I used organic tea and the result is lovely and perfumed. HUGE HIT

  • So you don’t add any yeast strain to open ferment the cider first? My vinegars failed awfully, except one blueberry apple variety that developed the thick (liver-colored) disk. I added mother after alchoholization. I’m going try it again, I was suitably frustrated after mold setbacks in 3 other varieties. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Peter

    Claudia: You know where to find them.

    Deana: I’ll have to try that. I’m going to infuse some cider with lemon marigolds next.

    Rebecca: No, apples are covered in yeast. Use organic juice; I use the apples from our biodynamic fruit CSA and it’s gorgeous vinegar.

  • [...] The adventures of making homemade vinegar, via A Cook Blog. This entry was posted in Article, Food Writing and tagged A Cook Blog, Vinegar. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Snickerdoodle Fix Comments [...]

  • Tresor T-mac

    So beantiful!

    I really enjoy coming to your blog.

  • Lee

    I’ve made 5 gallons of the apple before when a batch of hard cider went ‘bad’. It is amazing stuff but I haven’t played around with much else. From your post and the comments, I can’t wait to try black currant (I have about 20 lbs. that I grew in the freezer), elderflower ( I make elderflower champagne every spring), spruce and lilac (we did a lilac mead last year that is just starting to be drinkable). Thanks for the info.

  • madcookie

    hello peter,
    ive only just recently come across your blog, by way of mrs wheelbarrow.
    ive made my first vinegar “start” today. i had to crack up at the “mother” thing!! we are the borg. resistance is futile…. haha.
    it took me afew minutes to realise that apple cider is the same as what i know here in holland as apple juice. got that sorted now.
    im very keen to hear what you plan to do with the spruce vinegar. i havent read all your posts yet so perhaps you have already answered this question.
    and yes, maple vinegar screamed gastrique and voleille. also do you sour bast while you bbq?
    for your fruit vinegars, did you use whole or sliced fruit/berries? or did you puree them first?
    very much looking forward to reading more.

  • Philip

    Where can I get the mother or how do I grow it. I have a gallon wooden wine barrel filled with red wine turning to vinegar but I need the mother. Thanks

    • Peter

      You don’t actually need it; it will form spontaneously over time. If you do want to get some mother, you can buy raw cider vinegar “with the mother” in health food stores.

  • Marigold Outpost

    Peter, I attended community holiday / craft events this weekend in my little town. upon leaving one at the catholic school, I looked back and see bottles of different colored liquid. My 52 year old eyes could not focus, so with enthusiasm I said to my friend, do I see apple cider perhaps? I want to make apple cider vinegar with Mother. She asked, as we made our way to the bottle table, “oh! when is mother coming to Idaho”!. I chuckled and explained. Anyway, ALAS!! local home picked apples, mostly wild, no spraying, and so, organic ~ and made into gallon containers of apple cider (frozen probably to keep them from fermenting until the holiday show. It was only $6.00 for the gallon. YEY! I’ve got the defrosted cider split between two jars.

    Approx how long before cider vinegar with mother? 6 months? I’ll scan through comments and your article again. I pinned it on my Pinterest board for safe keeping. THANKS SO MUCH for the great blog.

  • Peter

    Six months is a rough minimum; if you can wait longer you’ll be glad you did. In the words of the Benedictine monk who taught me how to do this, “When it tastes like vinegar, it is.”

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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