The Vinegar making process starts with fermented liquids such as wine, ale, beer, cider, or fermented fruits and grains. The alcohol level must be less than 18%, or the process won’t start: if necessary, the liquid is diluted to get the alcohol level down. To this liquid, a starter called “Mother of Vinegar” is added (see separate entry.)
Until fairly recently, you didn’t even need to add starter. You left wine to stand, and bacteria called Acetobacter aceti that is everywhere in the air would infect your wine and get on with it. Catch is, we insist on wines lasting better so we don’t end up buying musty bottles of the stuff, and so winemakers now treat wines with sulfites and other preservatives to prevent exactly the kind of bacterial growth that you would want to make vinegar. So, you have to use a starter. To make your own starter, you have to get a bottle of unpasteurized wine to start from. Though it does seem a bit odd plonking down $10 for a bottle of wine so you can turn it into a $2 bottle of vinegar.
The sourness of vinegars depends on its having acetic acid in it; how much it has depends on what it is made from. Generally, on a sourness scale from mild to strong:
- Rice Wine Vinegar (popular in Japan and China)
- Cider Vinegars (popular in North America)
- Malt Vinegar (popular in UK and Canada)
- Wine vinegars (popular in Europe)
- White vinegar (popular in North America)
Balsamic vinegar is popular in Italy; Sherry vinegar is popular in Spain.
In some countries, such as Germany, you can buy “concentrated vinegar”, which is around 25% acetic acid, that you dilute down to the strength you need.
The strength of a vinegar is sometimes given in “grains”, which handily corresponds uniformly to its strength in percent:
- 4% (40 Grain)
- 4.2% (42 Grain)
- 5% (50 Grain)
- 6% (60 Grain)
- 7% (70 Grain)
- 9% (90 Grain)
- 10% (100 Grain)
Vinegar added to the water for boiling any vegetable will perk up the colour, especially items such as broccoli, red cabbage, etc. And some say adding it to cooking water reduces the cabbage smell (either that, or you can’t tell anymore because your whole place smells like vinegar).
Some even say to add it to the water you boil eggs in to make hard-boiled eggs easier to peel. Others recommend that if you are poaching eggs using the chuck-them-right-in-the-water method, a bit of vinegar added to the water helps to keep them together.
Vinegar can tenderize meat because it breaks down protein fibres. This probably makes sense, given how many marinade recipes call for vinegar, but consider as well putting a bit in the water you are braising meat in. Of course you know scientifically you’re really only going to tenderize the very outside of the meat that is in contact with the liquid, but never mind.
To fake a cup of buttermilk for those annoying recipes that pop up calling for it, to 1 cup (8 oz / 250 ml) of milk add 1 tbsp vinegar and let stand a short while.
For some reason, vinegar really helps beans come alive. To perk up bean soups or dishes or even just boiled beans you are going to serve on rice, add a bit of vinegar just in the last 5 minutes of cooking — just giving it long enough to cook so that your mouth doesn’t pucker. This tip can make all the difference in a bean dish.
Generally, vinegar is considered halal unless some additional wine or other alcoholic liquid has been added back into it at the end of the vinegar making process.
Other vinegars, or lemon or lime juice — even orange juice depending on what you are making. Some salad dressings in fact call for orange juice instead of vinegar.
Tamarind water (for sourness)
A glass of vinegar has never really made anyone’s top ten list of nutritious snack foods. But then to be fair, vinegar exists to be a flavour, not to be a food. Depending on what it is made from, it contain trace elements of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese. But then some tap water tastes like it probably does, too.
Unopened vinegar will keep for about two years in a cool, dark place. Once opened, the clock does begin ticking and you have about 6 months. If you want it to last longer, trying storing in the refrigerator — try this especially for those specialty vinegars that you used once or twice but can’t quite bring yourself to admit wasn’t quite as nice as plain old vinegar. This gives you longer to “own” them before you throw them out, and so you can feel as though you are getting more of your money’s worth.
The Sumerians used vinegar. You could buy flavoured vinegars in Babylonian markets. The Romans loved vinegar. At many meals you would even have a bowl of fruit vinegar to dunk your bread in. Roman soldiers carried vinegar (posea – a sour wine) with them; they would dilute it with water, toss in a few mint leaves plucked from the side of the path, and consider it a refreshing drink. We’ve traditionally thought of vinegar being offered to Jesus on the cross as a sour insult (Matt. 27:34), but scholars are now pointing out that, given how refreshing Romans thought vinegar was, it was probably actually an act of compassion.
Literature & Lore
“Here’s the challenge, read it: warrant there’s vinegar and pepper in’t. ” Sir Andrew, Twelfth Night, III, 4
“Vinegar possesses great merits for its many uses, without which life would lose its pleasantness”. Pliny the Elder, Roman naturalist, 70 A.D.
“Piss and vinegar” is an expression meaning full of energy, boisterous.
Titus Livius (BC 59 to AD 17), a Roman historian, wrote that Hannibal used vinegar to split rocks as he was crossing the Alps. That must have been some pretty strong vinegar. “The next thing was to level the rock through which alone a road was practicable. The soldiers were told to cut through it. They built up against it an enormous pile of tall trees which they had felled and lopped, and when the wind was strong enough to blow up the fire they set light to the pile. When the rock was red hot they poured vinegar upon it to disintegrate it. After thus treating it by fire they opened a way through it with their tools, and eased the steep slope by winding tracks of moderate gradient, so that not only the baggage animals but even the elephants could be led down.” — Livy, History of Rome 21:37.
The strength of vinegar allowed to be sold to consumers is legislated in some countries (in order to protect consumers from injury by too-strong vinegar.) Here is the legislation for Canada, as an example:
“B.19.001. Vinegar shall be the liquid obtained by the acetous fermentation of an alcoholic liquid and shall contain not less than 4.1 per cent and not more than 12.3 per cent acetic acid.
B.19.002. The percentage of acetic acid by volume contained in any vinegar described in Division 19 shall be shown on the principal display panel followed by the words “acetic acid”.
B.19.009. The maximum limits for the acetic acid content of a vinegar described in section B.19.001 do not apply to vinegar sold only for manufacturing use if the words “For Manufacturing Use Only” are shown on the principal display panel and upon all documents pertaining to such vinegar.” — Canada. Food and Drug Regulations Consolidation. C.R.C., c. 870. Division 19. 7 November 2014. Page 755.
In the Ozarks, a superstition held that thinking of sour people when making your vinegar helped:
“In making vinegar from molasses and rain water, the Ozark housewife hastens fermentation by putting in nine grains of corn, which she names for the meanest, sourest persons of her acquaintance. This is usually regarded as a sort of joke, but I know many women who never fail to do it, even while they laugh at the idea that it really helps the vinegar. Mrs. C. P. Mahnkey, Mincy, Missouri, tells me that she never troubled to name the grains of corn, but was always careful to put in nine grains, no more and no less. It was mighty good vinegar too, she says.”1
The native French (or Franks, as they were at the time) tasted the refreshing drink of the Romans, and pronounced it “yin aigre”, sour wine, probably after spitting it out. In modern French, the “yin aigre” would be “vin aigre”, from which comes vinaigre, and our English word, vinegar.
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Superstitions. Columbia University Press, 1947. Chapter 4. ↩