Red Wine Vine­gar

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MAKES ABOUT 6¼ CUPS Ac­tive: 5 min. • To­tal: 2–8 weeks This is a first-timer’s batch. To make vine­gar in larger quan­ti­ties for more gifts, use a 5-gal­lon food-safe con­tainer. What­ever ves­sel you use, never fill it more than half­way to al­low air to cir­cu­late. For best re­sults, choose a wine with low al­co­hol and no added sul­fites, and an un­pas­teur­ized starter vine­gar like Bragg ap­ple cider.

2 750-ml bot­tles red wine, prefer­ably 10%–12% al­co­hol by vol­ume ½ cup un­pas­teur­ized ap­ple cider vine­gar

1 In 2 half-gal­lon can­ning jars, di­vide the wine. Add ¼ cup vine­gar and ½ cup wa­ter to each. Cover tightly with a lid and shake vig­or­ously for 30 sec­onds. Re­move the lids and place a pa­per towel over each jar. Screw the rings on top to se­cure, or use a tight-fit­ting rub­ber band.

2 La­bel the jars with a start date and store in a dark place, ide­ally 68°–75°. For the next 2 days, re­place the lids and shake each jar once a day. Cover with a pa­per towel af­ter each time. Af­ter that, let rest with the pa­per towel for 2–3 weeks or up to 2 months, tast­ing with a clean spoon af­ter 1 week and in­ter­mit­tently through­out. If too strong, di­lute with up to 1 cup wa­ter and shake vig­or­ously ev­ery other day.

3 Trans­fer vine­gar to smaller, air­tight bot­tles for giv­ing if de­sired. Con­tinue to store in a cool place for 6–8 months. com­plex—they have a resid­ual sweet­ness and add in­trigu­ing depth to sal­ads—that when I moved away from Cal­i­for­nia for a short spell, I could find no equal and mailordered them out of des­per­a­tion.

As I sat in my kitchen, the wheels in my head im­me­di­ately be­gan to turn. Every­one uses vine­gar! Vine­gar lasts a long time, but not for­ever. If I made vine­gar at home us­ing this traditional, slow method, it would be far su­pe­rior than any vine­gar one’s loved one could read­ily pur­chase in a store (ex­cept for, well, Katz vine­gar). The im­age sprang im­me­di­ately to my mind: my small bar­rel sit­ting in my apart­ment, con­tain­ing a year’s worth of one-of-a-kind Christ­mas gifts for all my friends, branded khong.

I was champ­ing at the bit to buy my bar­rel be­fore it oc­curred to me that I should prob­a­bly con­sult ex­pert vine­gar mak­ers on just how fea­si­ble this project would or wouldn’t be. So I called the man be­hind the vine­gar, Al­bert Katz him­self, to ask for ad­vice. Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, Katz was a Bay Area chef in­flu­enced by Alice Wa­ters and the Slow Food move­ment. “We didn’t have any real do­mes­ti­cally pro­duced vine­gar,” Katz ex­plained. “The traditional meth­ods just weren’t be­ing used any­more, or very of­ten.” One thing led to an­other, and Katz be­gan mak­ing his own. And what makes Katz’s vine­gar so good? A traditional, un­hur­ried fer­men­ta­tion fol­lowed by ag­ing. “We ex­tract a lot of fla­vor from our vine­gars,” Katz ex­plains. “I want vine­gar to be seen as some­thing more than just acid, some­thing that has nu­ances of fla­vor.”

This way of mak­ing vine­gar is achiev­able by any­one. “For the per­son who’s mak­ing it just for their home, they have a lot of lat­i­tude be­cause they can fo­cus on qual­ity,” rather than speed and ef­fi­cien­cies of scale, ex­plains Lawrence Diggs, who runs both the web­site

vine­gar­man.com and the In­ter­na­tional Vine­gar Mu­seum in Roslyn, South Dakota. He’s also the au­thor of Vine­gar: The User­friendly Stan­dard Text Ref­er­ence and Guide to Ap­pre­ci­at­ing, Mak­ing, and En­joy­ing Vine­gar. “If you drink a cer­tain kind of wine, that can be­come your house vine­gar,” Diggs says, “and it will give a sig­na­ture to your food.”

The for­mula for vine­gar is sim­ple: You need an al­co­hol, you need oxy­gen, and you need the pres­ence of bac­te­ria—called Ace­to­bac­ter—that turn that al­co­hol into acetic acid. By flush­ing wine with oxy­gen us­ing cen­trifu­gal pumps (not un­like the de­vice gur­gling away in an aquar­ium), and keep­ing the wine at a high tem­per­a­ture, com­mer­cial vine­gar mak­ers can trans­form wine in just a day. The Or­leans method, by con­trast, is slow. It’s named af­ter the town of Or­léans, France, on the Loire River. When wine soured on the boat trips there, the Or­léanais turned it into vine­gar, and Or­léans be­came a vine­gar cen­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to Diggs, mak­ing vine­gar is rel­a­tively easy, and largely hands-off— in other words, a good con­tender for my ideal made-lov­ingly-at-home-yet-no­tex­ces­sively-com­pli­cated gift. “Wine, beer, most al­co­holic bev­er­ages want to be vine­gar.” And he adds, with a laugh: “Many peo­ple who call them­selves wine­mak­ers are ac­tu­ally bet­ter vine­gar mak­ers. Wine is primed for mak­ing vine­gar, and all you have to do is keep it like that—keep a clean at­mos­phere, don’t let rats fall in.”

Vine­gar is easy to make, but it’s not al­ways sim­ple. The fer­men­ta­tion should hap­pen slowly, but not too slowly, which gives acetic acid the chance to chem­i­cally re­act with al­co­hol and form ethyl ac­etate, a chem­i­cal that smells like nail pol­ish. Mold can flour­ish, as can vine­gar flies and worms (also called vine­gar eels, dis­gust­ingly). Sul­fites, added to wine as a preser­va­tive, to slow the trans­for­ma­tion of wine to vine­gar, can be a prob­lem if vine­gar is what you want. Katz says it’s not all that straight­for­ward, and he ar­rived at his tech­niques af­ter years of trial and er­ror. Diggs, though, is en­cour­ag­ing. “It’s such a cheap date,” he says. “If you fail, don’t worry about it. Try it again.”

As for my dreams of cre­at­ing my sig­na­ture vine­gar in a per­son­al­ized oak bar­rel, both Diggs and Katz were unequiv­o­cal: There is no need to pur­chase a bar­rel to make or store vine­gar. “Does it add fla­vor? No,” Katz ex­plains. “We get old bar­rels from winer­ies that are pretty well neu­tral.” About bar­rels, Diggs tells me, “it wasn’t be­cause it was the best thing to do, it was the best thing that they had.” They both rec­om­mend nonor­ganic ves­sels for the home vine­gar maker.

Thus ad­vised, I set about mak­ing my own vine­gar. I bought sul­fite-free wine and glass jars. I se­cured pa­per tow­els over the top of my jars (Diggs says fruit flies can get in through cheese­cloth) and said a prayer to ward off vine­gar eels. My jars are now sit­ting in the linen closet—wait­ing, like me, to be­come their very best selves.

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