Before Terry, I had an unbreakable rule about cooking with wine vinegar. Prefer lemon. Then a former colleague from the London Independent, a crime correspondent named Terry Kirby, set two tightly sealed jam jars on my desk. One contained a fleshy-looking substance suspended in red liquid. The other contained a fleshy-looking substance in white liquid. “They’re mothers,” he said.
Vinegar mothers, he meant. Starter cultures to convert wine to vinegar. One of Terry’s mothers was for white wine, the other for red. They were French, he said, and 200 years old. That was in 1989. I’m not sure that I ever thanked Terry. I certainly never thanked him properly. Once I had the wit to uncap his mothers, I not only started making wine vinegar from them, the resulting vinegar transformed how I cooked, how I ate and how I thought about food.
Real wine vinegar, I discovered, had unique bite and savor. Vinegar awakened foods, then refreshed them. It gave a dash of brilliance to just about everything it touched. It revealed the charm of the greatest of all French sauces--the vinaigrette. It transformed soups and redefined gravy. It improved cheese, woke up sandwiches, became so basic that it sits out on the counter with salt and pepper. It didn’t supplant lemons--you can’t make hummus with vinegar--but for so many jobs in the kitchen, vinegar now brings a liveliness, an immediacy and complexity that lemon juice simply lacks. I became so used to its invigorating shot of acid, the vogue for thick, sweet balsamic vinegar never dented my household.
Most recently, I discovered why all those years ago I thought that I preferred lemon. I phoned Ernie Farinias, a winemaker and resident “vinegar-ologist” at UC Davis’ viticulture and oenology department. Then I tracked down Sonoma vinegar-maker Karen Fahden. They explained that most industrial wine-vinegar plants are places where rot-gut wine goes to die.
It is a case, it seems, of bad wine in, bad vinegar out. The word vinegar comes from the French vin aigre, for “sour wine.” While wine is made in a process called “primary fermentation,” in which yeast converts the sugar of grapes into alcohol, vinegar is the result of a secondary fermentation. In this, bacteria called Acetobacter aceti convert the alcohol into acetic acid. The better the wine, the better the vinegar. If you use a good cabernet sauvignon, you’ll get a tannic richness and deep fruit flavors. A zinfandel will have a dancing freshness. If the wine has been aged in oak, there will be resinous aromatic notes. If you use barely fermented grapes or bad wine, as much of the vinegar industry does, you’ll get something sharp.
Wine, and Time
The upshot is that the best way to ensure a steady supply of good wine vinegar is to make it yourself. All this requires is a vessel of some sort, a dark cupboard and the odd glass of wine left over from good bottles to toss into it.
My own conversion to home vinegar making was not immediate. I tended to finish my bottles of wine. Terry’s 200-year-old mothers turned 201, then 202, still in their jars. Eventually, I bought an expensive stoneware crock from a French kitchenware shop on Kings Road. I decanted the red mother into it using a long-handled pair of metal tongs. This impressive new vessel had a lid at the top, where you could empty in the contents of unfinished glasses and bottles of wine. Down near the base of the crock, there was a cork plug fitted with a wooden spigot, where you could draw off finished vinegar.
Once I unbottled Terry’s mother, it seemed rude not to give her a little taste of whatever I was drinking. As the vinegar level steadily rose above the spigot, the crock started to leak. I rechecked the instructions and found that I should have soaked the cork stopper in water first, so it could swell and plug the hole. I put the thing in a plate to catch the seepage.
In no time, Terry’s mother was swimming in about a gallon of Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone and Barbaresco dregs. The contents smelled less like vinegar than like an uncleared kitchen table the morning after a dinner party. Italian friends, a pair of restaurateurs, asked if Terry’s mother had been exposed to metal. I remembered the tongs. I might even, I realized, have given her an inquiring poke.
“Metal kills mothers,” said one of the restaurateurs, the one who didn’t cook. They had friends who had killed their mother too, she added, but who revived it with expensive wine. I went home and gave Terry’s mother an entire bottle of Barolo.
This lifted the wine level to the top of the crock. Terry’s mother smelled better, but not like vinegar. Then I did my first thing right: I left Terry’s mother alone, for three, four, five, maybe six months. Only when the leak started seeping over the rim of the plate and across the floor of the cabinet was I driven to investigate. The slick consisted of some surprisingly delicious vinegar. The quality held inside the crock. I drew off bottle after bottle. I’d given some away as Christmas presents before I read Richard Olney, cookery writer and authority on things French, who recommended that the vinegar should be filtered. From that day forward, sediment, bits of mother, the odd vinegar fly were trapped by a paper coffee filter set inside a funnel.
Moving the crock around the kitchen, I discovered that the fermentation could be sped up by placing the crock in a warmer spot, slowed down by putting it in a cool one. It slowed down dramatically if I filled the crock more than two-thirds full (a no-no): Acetobacter, it emerged, need air. Thank you, Richard Olney, for instructing someone almost instruction-proof to always draw off finished vinegar before adding more raw wine to the top.
More thanks for the tip that the vinegar continues to mellow and improve once bottled. There is a school that insists on finishing homemade vinegar in oak wine barrels. My own feeling about this is that wine these days sees more than enough oak at wineries.
I got two crocks for Terry’s white mother, one for Alsace-style whites, one for champagne, but I was out of my depth. I cannot claim expertise with white wine vinegar. The ones I made were fine, but to my taste, they remained yeasty, never quite completing their conversion to an acid state. I’m told by Farinias and Fahden that I probably should have diluted these with water. It seems that white wine contains a higher percentage of sulfites and that these, otherwise very useful preservatives, may have hampered the action of the Acetobacter.
The Unstoppable Red
But once it got going, undiluted, my red wine vinegar kept fermenting nicely. I expanded the operation to two vessels, a large holding jar where the lid sat loosely on the top and fermentations started. The original crock became the finishing tank, where mature vinegar was never more than two weeks away in what I now reckoned was about a three-month process from leftover wine to vinegar. I needed two jars because my friends and I were now consuming vinegar as fast as I made it.
My liberal hand with vinegar owes much to exposure to Jeremy Lee, officially the head chef at the Blue Print Cafe at the Design Museum in London, unofficially a dear friend. One day we were in my galley kitchen. I was very pleased with a batch of bread I’d just baked and some cheese I’d secured, Mrs. Kirkham’s Lancashire. I handed him a sandwich made from it. He shot me a devilish grin, reached for olive oil, doused it with that, then picked up the red wine vinegar, sprinkled this lavishly over it as well, slapped the sandwich shut and took a deep bite. I wanted to scold him for tampering with my masterpiece, but my hunger was too powerfully aroused. I immediately imitated him. It was superb.
Jeremy also taught me about red wine vinegar and spinach. He considers it to be one of the holiest marriages in cookery, right up there with tomatoes and basil. We all hear about deglazing--it sounds so fancy and chef-like--but he taught me to put a quick shot of red wine vinegar into a skillet after cooking lamb chops at home, or any kind of chop, or even eggplant, to let it sizzle, turn off the heat, then quickly melt in a small knob of butter. The flavor of the jus, heck, gravy, that fabulous sauce, mingling with lamb chops, fried tomatoes and buttered spinach still plays in my dreams. I now deglaze everything.
Jeremy and I used to haunt the restaurant of another chef, Alastair Little. One of his signature dishes was oysters with a ramekin of shallots in red wine vinegar. The idea was to order them with napkins tucked in your collar and plenty of champagne as a euphoric retort to the saltiness of the oysters. The vinegar dressing didn’t dwarf the shellfish but highlighted its meatiness and somehow brought a rush of sea right to the table.
Looking for vinegar recipes can be tricky. Vinegar trade associations tend to promote the likes of vinegar cookies and vinegar pies. To my mind, this is as silly as calculating how many vinegar bottles stacked end to end it would take to reach the moon. Vinegar is rarely a main ingredient.
Thinking about Jeremy’s spinach salads, that gravy, even vinegar spooned over oysters, it occurs to me that vinegar doesn’t necessarily read as itself in a dish. It’s a condiment. Its kiss of acid causes us to sit up straight and exult at the deliciousness of whatever we’ve seasoned with it. Chef and cookery writer Deborah Madison talks about it “brightening” food. In “The Greens Cookbook,” she taught us to not just make lentil and spinach soup but to revive it just before serving with an invigorating lick of red wine vinegar.
I can think of only one recipe in which vinegar is the rightful star. It is, of course, the French classic sauce vinaigrette. You don’t need fancy oil, even olive oil. Just good vinegar, and good mustard. Put artichokes in a pot, or wash salad leaves. It’s even good on boiled potatoes, beans, or, if you’re stuck with earthquake rations, canned peas. Now, start with a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Add a pinch of salt. Taste. Add Dijon mustard, or, if you have it, the superb Pommery Moutarde de Meaux. Taste. If you’ve got herbs fresh or dried, got time and the inclination to chop, add chopped herbs. Ditto a clove of garlic.
Taste. If you don’t have herbs and garlic, don’t worry. It doesn’t need it. Now add oil, mild olive oil or plain old vegetable oil. Whisk. Taste. Finish with freshly ground black pepper.
When I moved to Los Angeles from London four years ago, I left Terry’s mothers behind, and all their starchy folds so heavily impregnated with 200 years worth of collective Acetobacter. But I was sure that California would be as full of good vinegar as it is of good wine. I found otherwise. Fahden confirms my impression. There are a few good ones, she says. Her family business makes vinegar for all sorts of clients--she won’t name them--and the quality varies according to what they are given to process. (Her tip to shoppers: Look for a wine varietal name on the bottle, say, cabernet or zin.)
But most winemakers wouldn’t dream of making vinegar themselves, she says. They are so terrified of inadvertently contaminating their wine-making machinery with Acetobacter that they don’t even want to drive on her property.
This is paranoid. Acetobacter, it turns out, is ubiquitous. It’s in the air, in the environment. While this spooks winemakers who are worried the wine will make vin aigre instead of vin, it is the best of news for the home vinegar maker. It means anyone can trap it. They don’t need Terry’s mother.
A Good Mother
However, there are many strains of Acetobacter, and some produce better flavors than others. Hence, the belief in mothers. Some starters with supposedly primo culture are sold on the Internet.
Myself, I just took a huge pickle jar, the catering-issue ones you see at club stores. (The smell of dill persisted for a while but faded and didn’t hurt the vinegar.) The Acetobacter might have been hanging around in the jar from the pickling vinegar, or they might have been resident in my kitchen. Whichever, they found their way in the jar, which I kept with the lid on, but unscrewed, with a gathering pool of wine just waiting for them. Slowly the wine began to turn to vinegar, good vinegar. Only three years into the operation is a slight layer of mother slowly forming.
Unlike the fancy French crock and Terry’s mother, the pickle jar doesn’t get Barolo anymore. Or Barbaresco. Those Piedmontese reds are prohibitively expensive here. But it does get a steady trickle of California zinfandels, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignons and the odd splash of chianti. As in London, I am now up to two jars. I saw an iced-tea maker for six bucks in Ralphs. It had the opening at the top and a plastic spigot that doesn’t leak for drawing off vinegar. The pickle jar now serves for primary fermentation, the iced-tea one for vinegar that is finished or finishing.
The bumblebees on it are a bit tacky, but nobody sees them. The only rule for using glass jars is to keep them in a dark cabinet, or even paint the outside to keep sunlight from the vinegar. On the other hand, if you want it on your counter, Sur La Table has a nifty ceramic crock for a reasonable $24.95.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a crock with a metal spout. Metal, I find, doesn’t kill mothers, the folds of cellulose that will eventually build as a byproduct of the conversion of alcohol to acetic acid. But vinegar will corrode the metal. If too much mother builds up, it should be taken out to make room for more wine. The fleshy mother doesn’t have any magical properties itself, but it will be impregnated by your strain of Acetobacter. By all means, fish it out, bottle it and give it to a friend.