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Making (bad) vinegar at home


I never used to think much about vinegar. The word itself, from the French term for sour wine, suggested it was for the most part something to avoid. I knew it was essential for salad dressings, and I loved malt vinegar with fish and chips, though repeated applications never seemed to yield quite enough flavor.

As the wine critic for The New York Times, I understood that good vinegar existed, but I never sought it out. Perhaps I had been scarred by harsh industrial versions, and the cloying knockoffs of balsamic vinegar that had somehow kept showing up in my kitchen.

Then, a few years ago, some really good vinegar shook me by the shoulders and said, “Love me!”

It was not store-bought, but made by a colleague, the Times photographer Tony Cenicola, who often shoots the tastings by our wine panel. Afterward, he takes away the half-empty bottles to photograph them. What happened after that, I never thought to ask.

Back in 2014, though, Tony told me he had been using the leftover wines to make vinegar. He offered me a bottle he had made from aglianico, a sturdy red from southern Italy. It was superb, gently acidic and subtly flavored, fruity with the mildest lingering bite. For me, this opened up a new world of uses for vinegar, like deglazing saucepans and flavoring braised greens.

Still, it took me that entire bottle, and another exceptional one that Tony made from leftover Provençal rosé, before it occurred to me that maybe I could make vinegar, too.

I certainly had plenty of leftover wine. And Tony had told me there was nothing to it. He had simply put the wine into one-gallon glass jugs, covered them tightly with white cotton cloth and left them on top of his refrigerator for an entire year.

So last spring, I got myself a one-gallon stoneware crock with a spigot. While doing a modest bit of online research, I noticed references to a vinegar mother, something akin to a sourdough starter, that would get fermentation going and speed the vinegar along. A timeline of a few months seemed more attractive than Tony’s patient year.

Many online references point to Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, which is bottled unfiltered, with the mother, as a good starter. But a mother for red-wine vinegar was not as easy to find. Luckily, Kevin Pike, a wine importer who also makes vinegar, pointed me toward Supreme Vinegar, which sells mothers for wine vinegar. Problem solved.

With great anticipation, following directions from Supreme Vinegar, I combined eight ounces of the mother with the same amount of water and 16 ounces of red wine to make a test batch. But that seemed not enough wine, so I doubled the amount. I covered the top of the crock with cheesecloth, stretched a rubber band around the rim and left it in a dark corner of our Manhattan apartment. The directions advised leaving it for six to 12 weeks. I was imagining gifts of holiday vinegar for my friends.

I gave it five weeks before checking. An enormous amount, maybe half, had evaporated, and the mother had formed a firm crust over the top. The vinegar smelled powerfully acetic and tasted overwhelmingly harsh. Thinking it needed to be diluted, I added another bottle and a half of red wine. Then I left it for another five weeks.

More evaporation. What remained was indeed vinegar, but it still tasted overpowering rather than gentle and lilting, like Tony’s. Its intensity hurt, actually. I added another bottle and a half of wine and left it for another month.

It was now midsummer, more than three months since I had started. I thought I had better ignore the vinegar for a while. And I tried, but it was hard to be optimistic. For one thing, if I was in the vicinity of the crock, I could smell it. And the smell was as potent as ever. The acid aroma mocked me, eating away at my confidence.

Then, in November, eight months from the start, I decided I needed to move it along. I lifted the crock from its corner and was surprised to find underneath it a thick, dark, crusted patch, as if a spill had occurred. Putting the crock in a sink, I removed the cheesecloth. The vinegar was practically all gone, except for the thick, matlike crust of the mother.

It could not have leaked. Had it evaporated? Had somebody accidentally spilled it? My wife and I had recently engaged a house cleaner who had left a trail of broken light bulbs and cracked soap dishes as evidence of her efforts. I had a suspicion, though I never got to the bottom of this particular domestic drama.

It did liberate me, however, from this failed batch. I was determined to try again, though with Tony’s laissez-faire approach. I scraped away the mother crust, rinsed the crock with wine and filled it. I put it away two months ago.

Tony has told me that he finds it hard to use any vinegar other than his own. He has counseled patience. “Give it at least a year to get started,” he said.

I’m waiting.


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