It has been a year since I changed lifestyles and got healthier. Things are moving along nicely. Part of that change is moving away from consistently using a combination of animal fat and salt as cooking fat, food, and seasoning all at once. Does that mean that people who eat with health in mind can’t use animal fat for all three? No, but it means that I had to branch out and become more comfortable using other ways of flavoring besides salt and fat. One of my favorite ways to season and flavor dishes has become vinegar, both on its own and as part of mustard and other sauces. The acid facilitates flavor in much the same magnitude, to me, as fat and salt do.
However, as it does often for me, it comes back to the pork. In January, I was at a friend’s home working on a country ham and we got to talking about loving vinegar. She pointed me to a cabinet filled with jars that looked like the dusty shelf on a high school biology lab. On this shelf was a menagerie of homemade vinegars in various types of mothers. For the uninitiated, a mother is a slimy blob made from cellulose and acetic acid bacteria that converts alcohol into acetic acid and in turn, vinegar. In any regard, I was generously gifted two mothers – one honey and one Pere Jacques (a great beer from Goose Island, here in Chicago) to take home and make my own vinegar.
I brought the mothers home (it sounds scandalous, but wasn’t) and went to work. Having just finished reading the great “Ideas in Food“, which had a different way to make vinegar using unpasteurized vinegar and wine, I set out 4 containers to start my first vinegars. Into the big cider jug, went a combination starting the “Ideas in Food” vinegar. Then into the jar with the Pere Jacques mother went a few bottles of New Glarus “Black Top” Black IPA. The beer was novel to me with the combination of the malty molasses flavors along with the piney hoppiness. Finally, I split the honey mother into two jars, one for white wine and, in the other, red.
After settling on which types of vinegar I would make, I covered the jars in cheesecloth and put them up in a dark corner of my cabinetry to do their thing for three months.
While waiting for my vinegar to transform, I was lucky enough to pick up some of Jonathan Sawyer’s Tavern Vinegar. I did not know what to expect and I had little experience in other vinegars. I had tasted some of the aged Blis vinegars and some really aged balsamic vinegars from Modena, neither of which I could afford to use regularly, and I knew that I preferred to use sherry vinegar at home for dressing vegetables and cider for pickling. Once I tasted the Tavern Vinegar’s my whole viewpoint on vinegar was turned on its ear. These tasted like something, not just vinegar. My favorite, the Beer-garlic vinegar, came from humble origins – Busch Light and garlic, but I used the bottle in a little over two weeks. It went on everything. Just like the guy who just discovered sriracha, I used this on steamed and roasted vegetables, lentils, beans, and it kicked me into making salads at odd times of the day and night to get a taste. Despite making my own vinegar, this one is going to be a pantry stable as long as I can scratch up a bottle.
Once three months passed, I pulled the vinegars down from their cabinet hibernation and gave each a taste. Just opening the doors, I knew that at least one of the vinegars was ready from the blast of fumes.
I figured by the looks of the Black IPA jar that we had a winner there. There were now multiple mothers in the jar and upon tasting, the complex beer had reconstituted itself chemically into a fantastically complex vinegar. Over the three months, there was a good bit of evaporation, but I now had 300 mL of Black IPA vinegar.
Next up were the white wine vinegars, both the honey mothered and the unpasteurized vinegar mothered, both of which were on point. Something to note is that using the mothers from my friend seemed to produce the zippier vinegars. In general, the vinegars, as I tasted them, were all sharper than commercial vinegar. This is likely due to commercial vinegars being diluted to a certain level of acidity. To me, I prefer the extra “zing”, so now that I have working mothers, I can make all that I need.
Finally, there was the red wine vinegar, which seemed to transform more slowly. As I had more vinegar than I could use between the Black IPA vinegar and the white wine vinegar, I put the red wine vinegar and most of the “Ideas in Food” vinegar back up to age a little more.
As I was so inspired by Sawyer’s Tavern Beer-garlic vinegar, I chopped, then mashed a few ramps and added the mash to 200 mL of the “IiF” white wine vinegar to put up for a few months to infuse that special ramp flavor into the vinegar.
As with long cured sausages, the waiting is the hardest part, but if it is half as good as the vinegar from the Greenhouse Tavern, then I would be doubly pleased.
As I mentioned before, the plan is to continue to make vinegar using the mothers used in this batch. Hell, the Black IPA vinegar had 7 mothers when I bottled the vinegar. With the complexity of that vinegar, I opted to split the 7 mothers between two different Wisconsin craft beers: first, the Belgian Red from New Glarus brewed with cherries, Wisconsin wheat and roasted barley, lagered in oak tanks and balanced by Hallertau hops aged for a year one full year and, second, the Satin Solstice Imperial Stout from Central Waters a uber-high alcohol imperial stout with strong coffee flavors. We’ll see in July how these turn out.