The word vinegar comes from the French vin aigre, literally meaning sour wine. Chefs (and just about every household) use vinegar to deglaze skillets & pans, marinate meats, add tang to vinaigrettes, sauces, and pickle all kinds of vegetables. It has various uses for our health and is also widely used as an effective cleaning agent (see lists & links at end of post).
The history of vinegar is thought to be at least 10,000 years old, and was probably discovered by mistake (think of Guinness, which btw, is Arthur’s Day today! If you show up in a pub at 5.59 you get a free pint. I have mine in my hands as I type this.)
Through the centuries vinegar has been produced from many other materials besides wine: beer, molasses, rice, dates, sorghum, fruits & berries, coconut, honey, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains and whey among others. But the principle remains unchanged: fermentation of natural sugars to alcohol and then secondary fermentation to vinegar.
Vinegars are made simply by adding a bacteria called Acetobacter aceti to diluted wine, ale, or fermented fruits or grains. This creates acetic acid, which gives the liquid a sour flavor.
Vinegar is alcohol’s close cousin, brought about by exposure to oxygen and specific types of bacteria that use alcohol as food. Basically, any liquid that has sugar in it automatically turns to vinegar when exposed to air.
The Babalonians used it to preserve foods and as a seasoning for their food. There are records of the Greek using it to preserve foods and Roman soldiers made it into a beverage as they traveled but vinegar as we know it was perfected in medieval Orléans, France, I guess from the necessity of salvaging spoiled barrels of Burgundy and Bordeaux wine. The Orléans process was quite simple and involved inoculating partially filled barrels of diluted wine with a vinegar “mother” from a previous batch and then allowing it to ferment, producing a new batch of vinegar every two to three months, and if you aged it in oak barrels for a further two years you’d end up with a spectacular condiment.
Nowadays not much has changed with vinegar, we still use it to preserve foods and season with. I still have the vivid memory of my step-father frying his eggs for breakfast and deglazing them with a dash of raspberry vinegar. It produced a sensational, unforgettable smell and to this day it remains my favorite vinegar, right next to my own rosemary/thyme/garlic combo. Wanna try making vinegar? No problem, it’s easy to do, and it will cost a fraction of the fancy & exotic bottles you might come across in supermarkets and specialty shops.
So what is a vinegar “mother”, you ask? Well, it’s not pretty. It’s a mucilaginous substance, a grayish/pinkish film of living bacteria that floats on the surface of the liquid being soured (see pic above). Because the microbes that convert alcohol to vinegar require oxygen to do their nifty work, only the portion of the wine exposed to air can be converted (note that refrigerating vinegar will slow or worse, stop the formation of the “mother”).
So how do I start my own? First, I would recommend you purchase a stone jar, similar to the pic above. Glass jars are ok too but you would have to clothe it accordingly as light affects the process, it will slow the vinegar production or even kill your culture.
You can buy a vinegar mother online (Google vinegar mothers online) or at any home brew store (though some bottled vinegars are sold with mothers inside) Now you will need some red wine, say a couple of bottles (you can keep adding as you subtract from the jar) and a pint of water. Cover with loose mesh cloth to allow air transferrence, and store above 80 degrees from 10 to 14 weeks for complete conversion. I like to flavor vinegar with fresh herbs so I would stick a couple of rosemary sprigs into the jar as well as some thyme and a few bay leaves. Peppercorns too, as many as you like. I give some hints further down: how to infuse your vinegar with various herbs and spices.
Once your vinegar mother is cultured and producing, it will continue to provide you with fresh homemade vinegar for as long as you keep adding wine and water, that simple. You want to a flavored, herbal vinegar? No problems. Just add sprigs of your favorite herbs into the vat. Can I add garlic? Yes. Loads, peeled or not.
Since vinegar breaks down protein fibers adding it to marinades overnight or braising liquids will help tenderize meat. A good marinade for a beef stew would be roughly as thus: a pint of red wine, a glass of red wine vinegar, thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves (2), cracked peppercorns, a big pinch of sea salt and a couple of juniper berries would do nicely. Mix well and pour over your cubed meat chunks and refrigerate overnight.
There are many, many different kinds of vinegars, most of them associated with regional cuisines. In France we tend to use red & white wine kind mostly which are tangy and great for vinaigrettes and marinades. The Italians, OTOH, much prefer Balsamic vinegar, which is dark (though they do manufacture a white version), complex, and slightly sweet. In the Iberian peninsula they often reach for a sweet, smooth yet potent Sherry vinegar (vinagre de Jerez in Spanish) a brilliant ingredient if you are making a fancy dressing for freshly steamed asparagus. In the US I came across Cider vinegar, which is tangy and quite fruity, great with omelets and egg dishes (for me anyway). I’m not crazy about malt vinegar which has a distinctive, lemony flavor of sort and is widely used in Great Britain, Australia and Canada (could it be because of their fish & chips tradition?)
The biggest seller of all is the ordinary white vinegar, which is distilled from ethyl alcohol. It’s incredibly cheap but somewhat you pay for what you get, it is harsh on the lips, so while it’s great for pickling vegetables and whatnots it’s not a good choice for most recipes.
I like the way Asians use their white Rice vinegar, which is relatively mild and indispensable if you’re making Sushi (that particular diary will show you how to make a reasonable sushi and be the envy of your friends and foes alike ;.)
I have a few notes on various vinegars, having compiled them from my restaurant days. There are, literally, hundreds of varieties of vinegar so I’m only going to list a few, the ones I have worked with:
Champagne vinegar: this is the Rolls Royce of vinegars, quite mild and flavorful, a good choice if you’re going to dress delicately flavored salads or vegetables. I would make a dressing using it in combination with a good walnut or hazelnut oil, for a grand occasion (Christmas, Easter etc…)
Raspberry vinegar: I simply love it and use it wherever I can, to deglaze meats, in dressings, with omelet dishes (think of a thick Spanish potato omelet deglazed with a dash of this ambrosia!!) It’s a no brainer to make: just add 50 grams of fresh berries per liter of red wine.
Rice vinegars: apart from their excellent sushi rice vinegar, the Asians also have a knock-out black rice vinegar made with glutinous or sweet rice, although millet or sorghum can be used instead. Dark in color, it has a deep, almost smoky flavor, goes well with Eastern soups and adds flavor to many stir-fries. In China they make a wonderful vinegar with red rice. I thought originally that it was made from rice wine but quickly found out the goods on it: it is made straight from rice. I have never attempted to make one because I don’t know enough about it. But I sure can appreciate it!
Cider vinegar: best when made from fermented apples. It gives a fruity, tangy flavor and it’s inexpensive to produce. While it’s not the best choice for a delicate sauce, it works well in chutneys, onion marmalades and meat marinades (I would use a less volatile vinegar for seafood, such as mango or papaya).
Fruit & berry vinegars: the most popular commercial vinegars are raspberry vinegar, blueberry vinegar, and mango vinegar. I once made a mango vinegar in Australia using six large overripe mangoes with skin on, cut in half, a few green peppercorns and a few fresh papaya leaves. I then made a dressing using avocado oil and served it with shellfish salads. But you’d have to be careful with fresh fruits: if too much fruit is added to the vinegar vat, it may not be sufficiently acidic to ward off harmful microbes. I did try to make a pineapple vinegar once (like the Mexicans do) but ended up with bitter mush. I think I put in too much fruit into it and ruined it. Like everything, it’s trial & error at casa mia!
Coconut & cane vinegars: these two strong varieties are found mostly in South-East Asia and the Philippines islands. I’m not too fond of these as they are fairly rough on the tongue but great for deglazing, say, an Eastern noodle stir-fry or giving character to an otherwise boring soup.
Herb vinegars: with making a herb vinegars you are killing two birds with one stone: it’s a most convenient way to preserve fresh herbs and to incorporate their flavor into any kind of salad dressings, marinades and sauces. It works well with either red or white vinegar. All you have to do is to stick two to four sprigs of clean, fresh herbs (think rosemary, thyme, sariette, tarragon – which is used for Bearnaise and tartare sauces) in a bottle of vinegar, tightly seal it, and let it stand for at least a few days. The trick is not to add too many herbs to your vinegar, or you may reduce the acidity of the vinegar so much that it loses its ability to preserve.
A special note to umeboshi vinegar: this Japanese vinegar has a distinctive, slightly fruity flavor but it’s salty as hell (for me anyway). It’s best to use it as a dip for Oriental types of savory pastries like Thai rolls or Japanese pot stickers.
Here’s a recipe for one of my favorite side dish: white onion & Acacia honey marmalade, divine with grilled sausages, a smoked tofu salad…and even on toast!
You can make a large batch of this, it will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. I make mine with two kilograms of white Spanish onions, peeled and chopped evenly, a small jar of Acacia honey (I love the intense flavor this honey offers, but you can substitute it with any other kind), 4 large spoonfuls of tomato paste (good for color), a liter of your red wine vinegar, 200 grams of brown sugar (though I have been known to use molasses instead), and as a special treat, if you can find it, a handful of thyme leaves, chopped finely. A dash of olive oil. Salt & pepper to taste. You can also make this hot if you add one chili (but don’t overdo it or you’ll lose the subtle flavor).
In a large skillet or cooking pot, pour a little olive oil, add the minced onions and cook till translucent, five minutes tops. Add the honey, thyme, the thick tomato paste and mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula. Add the vinegar and the sugar, salt & cracked peppercorn to taste. Cover the pot and simmer this for an hour over a low flame, stirring every now and then. It should have the consistency of….you guessed it, marmalade. If you want to add a touch of class to this dish, finely mince a handful of glazed orange peel and mix well when it’s done.
You can also buy onion marmalade online, but mine is better, and yours will be too, if you try.
Here are just a few of the ways vinegar can be used around the house, gleaned from teh internets:
To clean lime deposits from hard water on sinks, place a cloth or a few paper towels tightly around fixtures, pour vinegar onto the towels and leave for 10 to 30 minutes.
To remove hard water buildup in your favorite tea kettle, simply fill with vinegar and let sit for about 30 minutes. Rinse well.
Clean drains by pouring 1/2 cup baking soda down first, followed by ½ cup vinegar, and then cover the drain for 10 minutes. Turn the faucet on and flush thoroughly.
To clean a coffee maker, pour half pot of vinegar in the reservoir and run it through the cycle. Then run one or two cycles of plain water.
Housebreaking a puppy or rescued dog? Clean up those little “accidents” on the carpet by applying full-strength white vinegar for about 10 minutes and then blot dry. (Test in an inconspicuous area to ensure the vinegar doesn’t harm your carpet.)
Have fleas in the house? Pour 1 ounce of vinegar for every 6 ounces of water into a spray bottle then spray carpets, rugs and floors to get rid of the adult fleas. (Again, test the carpet in an inconspicuous area to ensure the vinegar doesn’t harm your carpet.) Wait one week, then spray again to get rid of the offspring.
For a simple, effective cleaner for eyeglasses, mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a small spray bottle.
For windows and mirrors, combine 2 parts water, 1 part vinegar and a drop of liquid dish detergent.
To clean and deodorize your dishwasher, add a cup of vinegar to a dishwashing cycle.
Remove stains and oxidation from stainless steel and copper-clad cookware with a solution of two tablespoons of white vinegar mixed with two teaspoons of table salt.
My great grandmother used to acidulate a pitcher of water with a dash of white wine vinegar and use it on freshly sliced fruits or vegetables so that they wouldn’t darken. She made it easier to peel hard-boiled eggs when a teaspoon of vinegar and a tablespoon of salt was added to the water they cook in. And as a bonus she always added a dash of vinegar to a pot of water to improve the color of any vegetables she was cooking. Another great memory of those days (I may have mentioned it in a previous food diary since she was such a huge influence on me and conversely on my understanding of foodstuffs in general) is the way she prepared her dandelion salads: I would gather a bucketful with my penknife and she would wash them and soak them overnight in water mixed with a little white wine vinegar and one lemon cut in quarters. Dried with linen cloths the next day, it was served with crunchy, tiny garlic croutons and a dressing made with virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar.
Today, people are still using white distilled vinegar in hundreds of different ways from cooking and cleaning to gardening and the laundry. It relieves mild arthritis pain, cures a stomach ache, dissolves warts, relieves itching from mosquito or bug bites, soothes sunburn pains, relieves a sore throat, jelly fish stings even bee stings. These are only a few known uses, there are literally hundreds of applications. Vinegar is a godsend!
Vinegar’s role in history is well documented. This versatile product was used by everyone from kings and conquerors to explorers and everyday people.
Hippocrates prescribed vinegar as a remedy for a variety of ailments.
Caesar’s armies used vinegar as a beverage.
Hannibal drenched huge boulders in hot vinegar which cracked them into small pieces, enabling his army to continue its journey across the Alps.
Helen of Troy bathed in vinegar to relax.
Jesus was offered vinegar before he was crucified.
Early Europeans used vinegar as a deodorizer.
During the Bubonic Plague people poured vinegar on their skin to protect themselves from germs.
Cleopatra dissolved pearls in vinegar to prove that she could consume a fortune in a single meal.
Sailors used vinegar as a food preservative during long voyages.
World War I medics used vinegar to treat soldiers’ wounds.
This site here provides a comprehensive list of the many uses of vinegar.
A fabulous US online retailer here for exotic vinegars such as pomegranate vinegar.