Saturday, February 18, 2012

Don't be a sour puss about vinegar

I've read several folks disparage pickles made with vinegar. I'm not sure why. I suspect it's because they are using dead vinegar. Or, they are using the wrong kind of vinegar to pickle. Cider loves cucumbers and that's all that needs to be said about it.

Many living foods like Kefir, Kombucha, and Yogurt, buttermilk and others have their own culture. Like sour dough starter, vinegar culture, is probably floating around in the air of your home.

I love vinegar and use it in many recipes: salad dressing, marinade for meat and fish,as an  ingredient in salsa or other chutney. It can be used to help a non-yeasted bread rise.

So, how do you start your vinegar? The fully developed culture is called a "mother", by the way, and can be used as a fast start for your next batch. But you don't have to have a mother to grow vinegar.

Okay, this sounds rather simplistic, but I always start a new batch with a good bottle of wine. Many wines already have a vinegar culture included and you will know one as soon as you open a bottle of wine that has "turned." But what if you don't want to wait to find that "off" bottle of wine vinegar? I say harvest it yourself.

If you want white vinegar, use white wine; if you want red, use a red wine. You want apple cider vinegar? Use apple cider! I have also made vinegar from left over mead (which is a honey wine). My most favorite vinegar for salad dressing uses a base of blackberry mead. I plan to use some of our next batch of strawberry mead for a vinegar if I can manage to smuggle away a bottle of it before the hoards guzzle it down.

Now, here is where I sound a bit mad. As a home brewer of mead, Kombucha and Kefir; and sour dough starters in addition to all the various vegetable ferments we eat; I have discovered there are way too many odd yeast bestiaries milling around in my kitchen. The vinegar bestiaries, literally are crowded out and do not thrive inside my kitchen. So, I raise my vinegars in my shed. This is the same area that is occupied by the sheep, so I have to be careful that the vinegar is tucked away safe and left alone while it grows.

I'm not sure, but I believe that like a certain cheeses or sour doughs, the secret to success is location, location, location. Some molds and yeast just gravitate toward certain environments. I've grown vinegar mothers successfully in my bedroom as well. But the best tasting ones come from the sheep shed.

So, how do I grow the mother? If starting without an existing mother, I pour an entire bottle of wine/cider/mead into a gallon glass jar across the back of a wooden spoon to make sure it is well exposed to the air. Then, I may even whisk it a little to get some nice air bubbles into it, or put a lid on and shake it really well. I normally perform this trick in my kitchen, but I have done it while balancing the jar on a board set across the wheelbarrow in the sheep pasture.

Then I take a linen napkins or handkerchief (I buy antique ones to use for these antique food brewing methods because I know they are really linen and not some odd plastic fabric), and tie it down with a big rubber band or a bit of twine. Then the jar goes out to the shed and is tucked in between two bales of straw up on a shelf back in the corner. I leave it there for about 2 weeks.

After two weeks I give it the sniff test. If it smells more like vinegar than wine, I start to believe we are getting somewhere. I hold the jar up and look through the liquid. I'm looking for some of those floating weird looking yeastie things you see in a Kombucha batch. They look rather like floating man-of-wars with a few tendrils hanging down. This will eventually grow into a full blown mother.

If I want a mild vinegar, I can bring it in and bottle it (usually into pint jars but sometimes quarts). I put on a top and set it in my pantry.. Shutting down the oxygen seems to slow the process at this point. If I want a strong vinegar, I may add a little more wine or boiled/cooled water and let it keep growing.

A fully developed mother looks and feels like a slime football. It floats around in the middle of the vinegar that feeds it and will eventually stop growing. You can pull out the mother and pull her apart or separate with wooden spoons and share her with friends. Having a mother already established makes vinegar growing very easy and much faster. I've had one mother live in red wine for about 8 years now even though she has been ceremoniously cut up into pieces annually. I just put a hunk of her back in the jar and pour another bottle of wine over her after harvesting the last bottle she transformed.

I have more trouble with the cider mothers but they also seem to like my sheep house. The whites are the fussiest and only want to live in my bedroom; but they are the divas.

The vinegar will grow the fastest in warm weather. It seems to stop completely when it gets cold. It does not like to freeze, so I bring them into the house and they live in my laundry room in the winter.

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