Homemade Vinegar: Mother May I?

Wow. I got quite a response from my acid vs. salt post a few days ago. So many people expressed having had an inkling about how acid and flavor work together. And it’s true. If you spend much time in the kitchen it does become intuitive. Maybe you can’t explain how or why it works but some cooking instinct or repressed kitchen gene takes over.

I also got lots of questions asking about brands of vinegar. But the truth is I am not an expert and play it pretty much hit and miss. I did post a list of the brands I have currently in my pantry in the comments section of the original post. So check that out if you are curious.

In making that list I started tasting a lot of them and began to really try and assess what I thought. It’s hard to taste that much acid and still trust your taste buds afterwards. But I have made a rather startling conclusion. One that counteracts some of the advice I gave in the previous post.

I said that if you were going to have just one bottle of vinegar about it should be red wine vinegar. While it’s true that it is the most versatile, and a great choice. It’s also true that it seems to be the hardest to find of decent quality at an affordable to mid-range price. Most of the other varieties of vinegar I tasted were consistently good, with deep complex, well balanced flavors. Especially the sherry vinegars.

But after tasting all my red wine vinegar I was a bit underwhelmed. No matter their origin. No matter their price. They all seemed a bit harsh.


I think in my mind I was remembering the years before my kitchen remodel when we first moved to this house and I was heavy into my “Little House on the Prairie” mentality. That’s when I actually made red wine vinegar myself for a couple of years.

Somehow I quit making my own vinegar. I probably became boring and career focused. Anyway, somewhere along the line I must have also stopped really tasting red wine vinegars and somehow just assumed that some of the store-bought varieties were at least as good as what I had made.

This recent taste test proved that wrong. Not one of them stood up to the memories I had of the vinegar I made myself.

So I have decided to restart my vinegar production. This time I am going to get organized about it too. I abandoned the process before because my equipment was slip shod and I did not have a dedicated place for it in my kitchen. So it was always in the way.

Of course it may be true that I quit production because a permanent vinegar smell overwhelmed my kitchen. If that turns out to be the case then I will probably nip this experiment in the bud. I mean I don’t mind my kitchen smelling like food. But if it’s starts to smell like a dirty dog bed, then we’ve got a problem.

But I am starting out with high hopes and the best intentions.

So why is homemade vinegar so much better? You will probably not be surprised to hear that the answer is… taste.

I find them to be crisp, but subtle. If that’s possible. There is certainly a better balance between fruit and acid. Partly because you are probably using a wine you already enjoy.

The commercial varieties seem to be more one-note, leaning towards the acidic. They lack that special sparkling quality that adds structure to a dish.

This is probably because they rush the product to market. A good vinegar takes some time. Of course the other reason is surely pasteurizing. Pasteurizing destroys the bacteria that make raw cream so special. I’d lay money the same is true with vinegar.

Making vinegar is actually, very, very easy. The most important elements are restraint and perseverance, because good vinegar takes 10 weeks to develop, and years to perfect.

From the research I have done it seems best to use an earthenware crock with a non-metallic spigot. If you get crazy you can move up to an oak barrel. But that would be a lot of vinegar!

You won’t need a lid because it needs to breath. But to keep the fruit flies and other contaminates away you will have to fashion a top out of cheesecloth and strong rubber bands.

The ingredients are simply, red wine (choose a good young fruity zin, merlot or syrah), water and a live starter, usually referred to as a “mother”.

And even the water may not necessary. I have read conflicting accounts on whether it should even be a part of the mix.

Evidently, the alcohol content of most wine is so high that the “mother” really goes to town producing acetic acid. The water is there to dilute the acid, thereby producing vinegar that is more balanced and less acidic.

But, contrarily, I have also read that it’s better to adjust the balance after your vinegar has developed by adding wine, water, or possibly fruit juice to the bottle with your final product. Though fruit juice makes me wary.

I don’t know whether to add any of these at the beginning or at the end.  It’s probably going to take some experimentation on my part. But my gut says end. If you know the answer, let me in on the secret.

To get started you need a “mother”. It can be purchased online. If you are lucky you can get a bit of “mother” from a vinegar-making friend. But I am going to try and start my own “mother”. Mostly because I like the challenge. but partly because I don’t want my friends knowing what a maniac I am.

I read mixing a little wine with an un-pasteurized commercial variety vinegar will develop a “mother”. Fortunately the Braggs cider vinegar I already keep in my pantry, I have been told, is just such a vinegar. So this will be my inoculant.

Because I am unsure if I will be successful in producing a “mother” I am starting my experiment in a large, lidless glass jar I already have. I am using one bottle of a 2004 syrah, cabernet, merlot mix from western Australia and 2 cups of my Braggs.

If I get a mother to form I will invest in a proper crock with a non-metallic spigot, something that will fit perfectly into a designated area of my secondary pantry. I only keep backups in there so it will sit unmolested most of the time. Hopefully, meaning that any odors will be unobtrusive. Keep your fingers crossed.

Once I have a mother. I’ll start the process of making vinegar. If memory serves me correctly I need to start with a couple of bottles of red wine. Once I get going I can add additional wine in small doses from the dregs of any leftovers we have. But that will have to wait until after I get one batch fully going.

But once I have a batch of vinegar I am happy with I can start siphoning off a small bottle here and there. That’s when I can start adding additional wine to keep an equilibrium going.

The “mother” takes some maintenance too. It will become a smooth, leathery, gelatinous, amorphous blob sitting atop the liquid. Eventually, the mother layer becomes quite heavy and sinks to the bottom. Without oxygen it cannot cause the reaction necessary to convert alcohol to acetic acid. So it’s best to discard it. Another mother layer will take its place, floating on top.

So it sounds easy and I really have done it before. I’ll certainly post updates and photos every couple of weeks in case you are curious.

I have high hopes. But somewhere lurking in the back of my mind is this question: “Why did I quit making vinegar in the first place?” Smell? Mess? It certainly wasn’t flavor.


Greg Henry