Monday, March 21, 2011

Learning Vinegar.

Saturday, just after lunch, I went down the road a half mile to my Parents' Amish neighbor's house to see if I could get a cup of heavy cream. An hour and a half later, I returned back home with a quart of heavy cream, and a bucket full of mother of vinegar.

The first time I officially met Elizabeth Hershberger last Spring, my Mom introduced me and said "This is Elizabeth, but most people call her Lizzie...". Lizzie smiled at me warmly and snapped back, "That's just one of the things people call me!" We spent at least an hour chatting about pork and beef (we were looking for sources to raise for us), and I wished for many split seconds that I was raised Amish. She told us stories that seemed straight out of Little House of the Prairie, how her and the children dispatch their cow every year, and all of them are made to help, even though a couple of them would rather not. They do the work as a family in the warmth of her husband's wood shop, since that wood stove is warmer, and they keep a cast iron skillet on there ready to go for when they get hungry. I wanted to crawl up into their world of a quiet, hard-working life and never leave. I figured that any homesickness for technology and indoor plumbing would subside after a few months of eating around that house...

Lizzie's gregarious demeanor makes her home on the corner the hub of information for both the Amish and English (the Amish term for us) communities: her family has a huge array of friends, many of them non-Amish. As I witnessed Saturday, a steady stream of visitors dropping in, picking up, dropping off - every one with a bit of information to trade. It's quite possible that Lizzie operates her family under the radar of conventional Amish eyes - I know that she watches some English children for a friend, and conceals them cleverly in Amish clothing so no one's the wiser. The bonus of that set-up is that the children are learning German.

I never went to Lizzie's home before without my Mom, but did Saturday for the first time. She welcomed me in, pulled me up a chair, and offered me a doughnut. Their kitchen table was a mess of coffee cups and half eaten pies, two of her daughters were attacking the post-lunch dishes. (The Amish don't keep daylight savings time, so I accidentally caught them just after their mid-day meal.) I stole sideways glances at them, since their hair was likely just washed for Sunday church and hung down well below their waists as it was drying. It isn't often you see an Amish girl with her hair down - and it really takes you by surprise.

I tried to make all of the mental notes possible about Lizzie's kitchen: the Pioneer Princess cookstove that her daughters drew hot water from to fill their dishpan, the stainless bowl that was heaped full of rising bread dough and covered with store-bought bread bags that had been cut open to increase their surface size. The Amish waste nothing. My Mom once saw an Amish woman sewing a plastic bag on her treadle machine to extend it's life.

After an hour or so of the news from around the area, Lizzie remembered that I was looking for vinegar mother last summer. I remember she ran down to her basement and came back with her arm dripping wet with vinegar up to her elbow. Her vinegar was made from cider, and stored in a 50 gallon barrel. She must have remembered as well, since she told me that the mother was ready and she could give me as much as I needed. She grabbed a clean plastic pail that once contained cottage cheese from the local creamery and quickly disappeared to fetch it.

"Do you want to see it?" She smiled at me, and took the lid off. It smelled delicious - like a floral alcohol tinged vinegar. I was surprised at the similarities to my kombucha SCOBY, but it was definitely different. It looked like a pile of fleshy rags. I started to get really excited.

Although I had been wanting to play around with vinegar since almost a year ago, I was totally unprepared. Lizzie's instructions were vague to say the least She said to just add it to some cider or wine or juice, her suggestion was to use the liquid that peaches are canned in since that tastes really good. She also said to leave it in a nice warm place, since her vinegar took a very long time to work in the basement- once she moved it upstairs, she had better luck. I figured with the Internet on my side I would have great luck in finding all the information I'd need to get started - including the very basics like how long will the vinegar mother last without being in a liquid? and how much vinegar mother do you need to inoculate the liquid you intend to make into vinegar?

A brief hour on the computer yesterday proved me enormously wrong. It seems a very simple thing like vinegar is somewhat complex. As with any culturing adventure, everyone you ask has a different perspective and set of rules. What am I actually looking for in my vinegar anyway: a gourmet extract that I can impress people with or a humble and quick addition to a salad dressing? Seeing that I got a quart of rhubarb-raspberry juice from my Mom's pantry to try and vinegarize, I'd say my goal is probably a mix of the two.

My quick research was telling me that to make successful vinegar, you need to put the mother culture into an alcoholic solution. The culture then ferments to make acetic acid, and at that point I need to decide whether or not to stop the fermentation process by pasteurization of the vinegar prior to bottling and aging. I'll have a few months to worry about that last step - and a few months to be more thoroughly confused by all the conflicting information. I do not have a scientific mind, and I have to read and re-read a lot of information that is somewhat scientific to digest it. If that fails, I know I have a great contact.

My ponderings were made a bit easier by a visit to Northern Brewer today. I should have been cleaning my house and doing some laundry, but I ducked out after lunch and got to meet Jeremy King in real life. I think I apologized to him a few times for looking "glazed over", when he was explaining how yeast eat, and how best I should go about making my quart of fruit juice into alcohol. We talked for quite awhile, and then he suggested that I try using already fermented wine. I knew (and so did he) that I was supposed to use low-sulfite wine, and lucky for me, he had a menagerie of homemade wines in the basement. I know I need another food hobby like a hole in the head, but I was so excited looking at what all the people at Northern Brewer are fermenting!

He insisted that I take a couple gallons of an amazing new-to-me wine varietal Lemberger. The grapes were grown in Washington, and the wine was started last October if I remember right. Since the wine is already fermented, I pulled off a portion of the mother of vinegar, and added a few tablespoons of the liquid to the pail Jeremy gave me. I stashed it under the kitchen counter, and now I just have to wait a few months. I have a feeling it is going to be amazing.

Jeremy also coached me on a yeast strain to use for kick-starting my rhubarb-raspberry juice into alcohol. I felt like an apothecary (looking at crib sheets, of course) adding nutrients, energy and yeasts together this afternoon. I hope it works, so I can give him all of the credit for helping me turn Wisconsin rhubarb and raspberries into salad-worthy vinegar. I have another little packet of yeast to try my hand at fermenting some cider, I just hope my co-op still has the gallon jugs I remember seeing a few weeks ago.

I can't help but think that all of the time I feel like the our world is such a fast-paced place, and that we really make it that way for ourselves. Lizzie can be up to her eyeballs in canning in the mid-Summer, but if you stop by, she is never too busy to make you feel at home. Places like Northern Brewer are unique since it's expected that their employees would need to chat to effectively serve the customer, but it's really more than that I think. Food people always take time for other food people, and it really makes the world feel smaller and more intimate. It's comforting that I'm actually able to connect with other people and learn things from them, something a computer will ever be able to do. That kind of one-on-one schooling is priceless.

It may be a good long while until you read more about my vinegaring... but sometime it will pop back up here. Meanwhile, if you have ever made vinegar (intentionally or not), drop me a line and give me some advice!


  1. OOOh. So intrigued. I had a hunch that vinegar "mother" would look a lot like a kombucha scoby, but I've never encountered one in real life. Can't wait to see what the results of this experiment will reveal!

  2. Well, I don't profess to know a lot about vinegar but I was raise on my father's red wine vinegar - literally. He believed vinegar was a cure for all from hiccups to sore throats. Anyway, he was never really scientific about it. From what I understand the purity of the wine was important so your homemade variety will be great. He never left the mother uncovered and would pour off most when it was ready leaving some vinegar with the mother then carefully pour in the pure red wine. He had them in large glass jars with the lids left slightly ajar to allow the vinegar to "breathe". I was fascinated by the creamy white mother as dad's were almost liver-like being because of the red wine. Good luck, my dad would be jealous because he has not been able to find pure wine for some years and has subsequently lost the mother. He had them for many years though maybe 25 or 30 years, I would think.

  3. Marcellina- thanks! I'm glad to know that he left the mother covered loosely with lids, since that's what I've been doing so far! Do you know if he left the mother at room temperature? I'm not sure if I should tuck mine into the fridge or not...

  4. So exciting! I can't wait to find out what happens. (And learn from your lessons!)

  5. wait for me!! But,but, what is the Mother?

  6. I am sure if I can just learn to'll wait for me for just a minute right? Can I ask.....what is the Mother?

  7. Robin,
    The mother is a culture comprised of cellulose and bacteria. It will naturally occur in store bought vinegars that haven't been pasteurized (like Bragg's), or in low-sulfite wines that are left to the air. Pretty much any liquid that can turn into alcohol and then on into vinegar will naturally develop one if given the time and warmth it needs to thrive... but this is what a culture would likely look like if you bought some online, or got some from a friend like I did.

  8. I loved this post--the story as well as your adventures with vinegar making. I get a kick out of the fact that the culture is called "mother." We sometimes don't finish our wine and like everyone must do, comment that "it tastes like vinegar" the next day if improperly stored. Haven't yet taken that next step--I will keep an eye on how it goes for you.

    But man if that mother isn't funky looking.


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