Making vinegar from scraps (and growing your own mother)

May 10, 2014 at 8:31 pm Leave a comment

making vinegar

Freshly strained vinegar

Continuing on from yoghurt and bread in the Counter Culture series, another interesting kitchen experiment is to make cider vinegar. It’s surprisingly easy and absurdly satisfying, turning fruit scraps into something with a truly amazing number of uses. And all it takes is fruit and a jar of water; air and time will do the rest.

Vinegar has a remarkably long history, extending back to the Sumerians and beyond, a good 8000 years and probably more. Many people swear by it for a myriad of wondrous health uses, and also as a remarkably versatile cleaner, especially when complemented with bi carb soda.

Cider vinegar is created when the sugar in fruit juice ferments, turning the sugar into alcohol. A group of bacteria called acetobacter then feed on the alcohol creating acetic acid, which gives vinegar its distinctive acidity.

During this process, the bacteria create a curious-looking layer of cellulose that floats on top of the vinegar, called a mother, or Mother of Vinegar. Most commercial vinegar has been pasteurised to kill off this bacteria and stop it growing more mothers at home (after all, most people would be a little uncomfortable finding a glob of gelatinous goo in their bottle of vinegar, and would assume it had gone off.) However it’s harmless, and chock full of live, good bacteria.

mother of vinegar

A 2 month old mother. The underside is coloured by the apple scraps on which it grew. Surprisingly reminiscent of a placenta

There are a number of ways to go about making cider vinegar, but the one I’ve been using is simple and doubly satisfying because it involves making something useful out of a waste product.

Materials

A large glass jar, preferably with a wide neck
A mesh lid, or a scrap of cloth that can be held on top with a rubber band
Apples*
Sugar or honey
Water
Vinegar, possibly

big mother of vinegar weird mother of vinegar

 

Method

Wash and peel your apples, reserving all peelings and cores. You could use the flesh of the apples too, but the larger the chunks, the longer it takes to convert. (This makes a great excuse to make apple crumble or applesauce with your skinned apples. This is usually my aim, but the kids almost invariably eat them before I get the chance!)

Cram your apple scraps into the wide necked jar, add a tablespoon or so of sugar to provide some immediately digestible sugars (or you could try honey or some other form of natural sweetening – this is said to slow the process down a bit, however this has not been the case with my own experiments.) Add warmish water until the skins are just covered, leaving a decent amount of air space in the jar. The greater the ratio of surface area to liquid, the sooner your vinegar should be ready.

Acetobacter are present in the air naturally, so inoculating your new culture is generally easy. Use a breathable lid such as cheesecloth, or even a normal lid that has not been done up tightly, to allow air circulation but prevent insects falling in and contaminating your brew. However you can help things along by adding a glug of vinegar to your jar.

Put your jar somewhere coolish and leave it to do its thing for a while. It can take anywhere from 1 – 3 months, depending on temperature and other factors, including how sharp you want it to be, relative to how patient you are. You can start taste testing it with a straw after about 3 weeks and when it reaches an acidity you are happy with, strain, bottle and use straight away or leave it to age further.

Notes

  • Keep all fruit submerged or it can go mouldy. Mould is unlikely to be really nasty, but it is not good either. Don’t consume anything you really don’t like the look or smell of.
  • To speed things up, try whisking your mix to aerate a few times in the first week. Or add more vinegar. Most sources say to add unpasteurised vinegar, but it worked for me using normal vinegar too, so it’s worth a shot if you don’t have the other sort on hand. Unpasteurised vinegar will add helpful live bacteria, but normal vinegar will at least help boost the acidity to get things moving in the right direction.
  • Vinegar bacteria are not fond of sunlight. Some houses are dark enough as is, but I find I have to keep mine in a cupboard.
  • Don’t be alarmed by the scum that begins to form on top of your vinegar. This is the beginnings of your mother. If you leave the jar undisturbed, this will gradually thicken and form a curious looking disc on the surface of your vinegar.
  • The mother will sink to the bottom if it gets wet on top, and another will begin to form on the surface. This process can continue until all the available sugars have been used up.
  • Unless you can test the acidity of your vinegar, it is not recommended to use it for pickling or preserving as it may not be acidic enough to kill off any invading nasties.
  • You can also use fresh apple juice, however I suspect it would be important to use some starter vinegar to get the conversion going quickly before it went off.
  • Consider writing the date on your jar or a calender somewhere. I can rarely remember what I was doing 2 days ago, let alone whether I peeled some apples two months ago or three.
  • Once you’ve grown your first mother, you can add it to future batches to get them going more quickly. Or you can feed it to the chooks.
  • The process is pretty forgiving. So far I’ve made maybe 10 batches, under a variety of conditions; adding vinegar (raw, pasteurised, and balsamic) or not; scraps versus apple chunks; summer and winter; daylight versus dark; filtering the fruit out after a month or leaving it in; short and long fermentation periods, and so on. They’ve all worked so far.

 

homemade ACV

Freshly strained vinegar to the left, the mother sitting atop the scraps on the right. Only a small batch this time. Both mother and vinegared apple dregs are great for chickens.

*Don’t like apples? Try some other fruit. There are endless variations to explore. Vinegar is often made from grapes, rice or other grains, pineapple is sometimes used as a starter, and raspberry vinegar is another common flavour. Consider the sweetness of the fruit and add more sugar if required. You can also make your own wine vinegar if you dilute it enough that the alcohol content wont kill off the vinegar making bacteria.

vinegar from apple peel

A little balsamic in the left, and the pink one? Um, maybe I put some red wine in there? Sometimes I forget to keep notes.

two mothers of vinegar

The white surface in the left is more common, but the pink one smelled right and tasted fine too.

I’m not an expert (in anything!), just an extremely curious researchaholic. If you have more experience, or have been experimenting with culturing, I’d love to hear about it.

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Entry filed under: Food, In the Home. Tags: , , , .

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