Making vinegar the old way

23 May 2011
A warm and sincere thank you to everyone who visited Sarndra yesterday. We are both delighted with your lovely and encouraging comments. I have no doubt Sarndra will have many excellent organising ideas in the future and I'm looking forward to seeing how she leads us towards better organised homes.


I have been reading the wonderful Wild Fermentation book by Sandor Ellix Katz, with foreword by Sally Fallon of Nourishing Traditions fame.  If you have a chance to read this from the library, or better still buy it - it will make an excellent reference and recipe book - do so. It is a sensible and intelligent guide that will lead you on healthy food pathways. This post comes partly from reading Wild Fermentation and The Vinegar Book by Emily Thacker, partly from making vinegar the past couple of years and partly knowing that without fermentation there will be only lifeless food. You can read my old post on pineapple vinegar here.

I love good vinegar. Hang  on, I like the cheap cleaning vinegar too. I guess I love all vinegars. I love that sharp acid taste, it's health properties and being able to clean with it is just the icing on the cake. Vinegar is really easy to make and anyone can do it.  Can I entice you to give it a go? You have to get rid of all those notions of having sterile food because vinegar, along with cheese, sourdough, yoghurt, wine, beer and many other foods and drinks, rely on bacteria and yeasts to give the flavour. But remember, you have control over every part of this process. I reckon if you saw behind the scenes of many food making factories you wouldn't touch their food. If you try this, it will show you a natural process that has been used for hundreds and probably thousands of years, that will deliver a wonderful product to you. This is gourmet food making at its best.

You can make excellent vinegar at home using old wine, apple cider or fruit. It requires no special equipment. Today we'll be focusing on apple vinegar, because I still have an over-abundance of apples, but you could make this with any fruit or fresh fruit juice you have on hand. You will need a glass or crockery wide mouthed container that will hold about one litre/quart, and a net, cheesecloth or muslin cloth covering to keep out the visiting vinegar flies and other insects. If you want to make a large amount of vinegar, use either a water crock or a food-grade plastic bucket.

Air is very important to vinegar making - it is an aerobic process. Your vinegar must have air contact all the time to allow the airborne beneficial yeasts and bacteria in your home to colonise the liquid. Stirring the vinegar during the making of it will increase the amount of air being introduced to the mix and will increase your chances of making good vinegar. It also needs to be stored in the dark, so keep it in a dark cupboard during this process.

If your first attempts at vinegar making fail and you've been using glass, you can give it another go using a container that doesn't let in any light. If you routinely use anti-bacterial wipes or soap, you may have knocked out all the good guys. According to Mr Katz in Wild Fermentation, "Your skin, your orifices, and the surfaces of your home are all covered with micro-organisms that help protect you (and themselves) from potentially harmful organisms that you both encounter. Constantly assaulting the bacteria on, in, and around you with antibacterial compounds weakens one line of defence your body uses against disease organisms.  Microorganisms not only protect us by competing with potentially dangerous organisms, they teach our immune system how to function." (Page 9) I agree with him wholeheartedly.

If you don't have access to rainwater, the day before you make your vinegar, save a litre of tap water and allow it to sit un-covered to let the chlorine evaporite off. You don't want to introduce anything into this process that will inhibit the growth of the yeasts you are hoping to capture.  Some tap water is heavily dosed with chlorine which kills bacteria and like antibacterial wipes, it kills the bad as well as the good yeast and bacteria. If you use it, you may well kill off any hope of making your own vinegar because the water will kill the colonising yeasts and bacteria.  I was going to add some leftover Scrumpy cider to my vinegar but I checked the label before adding it, saw that it contained sulphides, and left it out.  Sulphides are added to some food and drink to stop bacterial contamination, it would have killed off the beneficial yeasts and any chance I had of making vinegar. Had I known this Scrumpy contained sulphides, I wouldn't have shared the bottle with Hanno for dinner last night.

Start with a clean jar - wash it just before you use it - warm soapy water and a good rinse. Add ¼ cup of sugar and a litre/quart of filtered or distilled water to your jar, then add any cut up fruit or fruit scraps you have - apples, bananas, grapes, mango, pineapple - whatever and fill the jar. Then pour enough water in to cover the fruit. Cover the jar with an open weave cover, fix the cover down and leave it in a warm place (around 23 - 28C/73 - 82F)  to ferment. And that's it. Stir the mixture at least once a day and recover it. 

I have a number of vintage and new coverings for the wide variety of fermented foods I make here, if you don't have something similar, here is an easy way to make one. Take a piece of open weave cotton or a double layer of net and cut it to the size you need, with about two inches overhang.  Zig zag around the outside with your sewing machine, or hand stitch it. Now cover the top of your container and fix it on with either a rubber band or one of those canning lids without the centre piece.  See the photos below.

If you're a keen crocheter, you could copy this style of cover which were in most kitchens up until the time we stopped making all those delicious foods like sourdoughs, sauerkraut, ginger beer and vinegar.

I'll be following this vinegar along over the weeks, so if you decide to join in, we'll troubleshoot along the way if there are problems. If you've ever longed for the days before cheese slices and sterile food, now is your chance to win back forgotten techniques that will allow you to make food the way your great grannies did. Our first vinegar checkup day will be this Thursday.