homemade vinegar

Can you guess which one is homemade…?

Vinegar is a crucial cooking ingredient. Obviously, it’s the cornerstone of vinaigrette and many other salad dressings, but it can also spark up sauces or make a tenderizing marinade. And, as it turns out, it’s easy to make a version vastly better than what you can buy.

When I first started making my own red wine vinegar in 2006, I asked my wife to set up a blind tasting: my first batch versus the hodgepodge of red wine vinegars we had on our pantry shelf.

When she brought out the small bowls, we both started laughing. One of the vinegars had a rich, ruby red color. The others — including some upscale ones — were wan in comparison. The next most colorful vinegar was a pale salmon. So much for the blind tasting.

Red vinegar made by hand

Ready-to-serve homemade red wine vinegar. (Image courtesy chiotsrun.com)

When it came to flavor, the other vinegars didn’t stand a chance. I never buy wine vinegar anymore. I think about bringing mine when we vacation at some rented apartment, because I know whatever’s there will be thin and coarse.

Vinegar making is basic science. In the presence of oxygen, Acetobacter bacteria feed off of alcohol and convert it to acetic acid. That acid, plus the water from the wine, creates vinegar. Even industrial vinegar makers rely on this basic biology.

Acetobacter is everywhere, even — in small amounts — in wine. In theory, you could leave a half-full bottle of wine on the counter and it would turn into vinegar. In practice, this rarely works for me. Give yourself a leg up by using an existing culture, called a mother, and adding wine to that. Get a mother by asking a vinegar-making friend — we love to share! — or visiting a store that sells it. Oak Barrel Winecraft in Berkeley, California, is my go-to source for vinegar supplies.

Your best bet is to start with red wine, since it generally has fewer sulfites than white wine; sulfites retard vinegar production. Once your batch is going, you can add post-party dregs or do what I do: buy $10 table wines from a decent wine store. Commercial producers buy low-quality wine off the bulk market, so you’re already at an advantage.

The bacteria need oxygen, but that’s easy to get. Leave your vinegar container — a large glass jar if you don’t want to shell out for a barrel — open to the air, covering any openings with cheesecloth to keep out the little circus of wine flies you’ll soon own. I periodically — once a day when I’m fretting and once a week when I’m not — whisk the vinegar into a frenzy to give the culture a bit of a rush, but plenty of people don’t do that. (Industrial vinegar makers do essentially the same thing, whirring the liquid with a rotor to drastically increase the surface area of oxygen in the liquid. They can change wine into vinegar in just a day!)

The formula for acetic acid

The acetic acid formula.

Acetobacter also likes to eat. And though they’ll chomp away happily at some alcohol, too much will kill them. The actual tolerance varies by species, but I try to never add liquid that’s more than ten percent alcohol by volume. You’ll quickly realize that no one makes wines with that little alcohol, so I dilute my wine with water until it’s the right level.

The math on this is easy. Round off your alcohol percentage, say 14.5 percent, take the number in the ones place, multiply by ten, and that’s the percentage of water you need to add to your wine before adding it to the vinegar. For instance, that 14.5-percent wine rounds to 15 and thus needs 50 percent more water relative to the wine. No need to get out the gradual cylinders here, though. I just eyeball it in a measuring cup and err on the side of more water.

Note that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the alcohol level and the level of acidity. A ten-percent wine vinegar will become a ten g/L vinegar, about twice as acidic as commercial brands. In other words, when you’re using your own vinegar, don’t blindly add whatever a recipe calls for. Add to taste.

Acetobacter converts alcohol into acetic acid as the mixture is exposed to oxygen.

Acetobacter converting alcohol to acetic acid as it is exposed to oxygen. Who knew a Chemex could be so versatile? (Image courtesy Chiot’s Run, chiotsrun.com)

Every vinegar maker I’ve heard about seems to treat their vinegar stash differently. I’ve read that Alice Waters pulls vinegar out of her barrel when she needs it. Some people bottle theirs. Some bottle it after filtering or pasteurizing it. I strain mine through cheesecloth into bottles and then leave the bottles in a cool spot for six months to mellow.

And how do you know when it’s done? I just go by smell. I smell my batches regularly and when they smell like vinegar and not nail polish remover — the result of ethyl acetate, which the bacteria can also make — I consider them done. Six weeks or so is usually enough, though I’ve had some go two months. I leave about one-third of the batch in the container and add more wine to start the process again.

These days I keep red-wine and white-wine vinegars going. I’ve had some batches go bad (a fungal infection in my barrel, stuck transformations that leave the batch smelling only like nail polish remover and never like vinegar), but I’ve always just picked up and started again. As food preservation goes, vinegar is one of the most casual, least labor-intensive, and least finicky projects I’ve ever undertaken.

And you won’t believe how amazingly good it is.

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30 Comments

  1. Mary
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 2:03 AM | Permalink

    Do you think the "mother" in Bragg's apple cider vinegar would be a good way to start by just adding red wine to that? Or would that get weird from mixing metaphors, as it were?

  2. Posted August 23, 2012 at 2:15 AM | Permalink

    In general, you can mix mothers just fine. Just go from lighter colors to dark colors: If you use red wine vinegar to start a white wine vinegar, it will have a bit of a blush to it.

  3. Leonard
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 12:09 PM | Permalink

    Good article and very informative. What quantity of "mother" is needed to get the process started with a bottle or two of red wine?

  4. Posted August 23, 2012 at 12:36 PM | Permalink

    Leonard, thanks for the kind words.

    When I have to restart a batch, I use an 8-oz. jar of starter from Oak Barrel for a 750-ml wine bottle (plus whatever water is necessary). I used to believe that one should start with small batches to build up a solid culture, but over the years I've come to be happy with the above ratio.

  5. Kathryn
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:11 AM | Permalink

    When restarting the process, you mention leaving 1/3 of the previous batch in the barrel/container and adding more wine. Should water also be added or was that only to get the first batch started? And is the slimy looking film on the surface "mother?" There is quite a bit in the barrel and it's difficult to remove.

    Thank you for the very useful info.

  6. Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:26 AM | Permalink

    Hi, Kathryn. Almost whenever I add wine to the vinegar, I water it down to bring it to 10%. (If it's just a cup of wine going into a big batch, I don't usually bother, since I figure the alcohol level isn't going to go up very much; I'm fairly casual about it.)

    And the slime is indeed a sign of a healthy mother! (I consider the active culture in the liquid to be the mother, with the slime a byproduct, but that's pedantic.) I just grab the mother with kitchen tongs. If you've got the classic small-holed barrel, perhaps a fondue fork?

  7. Chris
    Posted March 7, 2013 at 1:59 PM | Permalink

    Hi, I am a little confused by your process for diluting wine. When you say you multiply the number by 10, what number are you referring to? I am wondering how you got to 50% water to wine ratio from a 15% abv wine?

  8. Hope
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 12:17 AM | Permalink

    What is the Alexander method of wine vinegar making?

  9. Pam
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:49 AM | Permalink

    Do you worry about the sulfites in the wine? Is there a way to get rid of the sulfites?

  10. Posted July 26, 2013 at 6:07 PM | Permalink

    Hi. I started my red wine vinegar with a disc of mother sourced from a bottle of organic red wine vinegar I had in my cupboard. I added water and wine to it in the ratios you suggest, and three weeks later the entire surface is covered in a new mother disc (the old one is still there too, underneath) and the mixture smells very very strong. Do you think it's ethyl acetate? If so what should I do now?

  11. Posted July 27, 2013 at 12:04 AM | Permalink

    Marie, that sounds great! If it smells strongly of nail polish remover, and you don't smell anything vinegary, give it a vigorous whisking every couple of days. If it's a mix of vinegar and nail polish remover, you can still give it a good whisking, but that mix is fairly normal. Pam, I don't typically worry about the sulfites — red wine has less than white wine — but you can keep an eye out for low-sulfite wines. Either ask at a good wine store or look for an "organic" wine section, which is often where such wines end up (not because they're necessarily organic, but because people looking for one are often looking for the other, too.)

  12. Posted July 30, 2013 at 1:51 AM | Permalink

    Red wine vinegar is a great add-on to grilled fish.. It goes down a treat!

  13. Danna
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 10:25 AM | Permalink

    As a wine sales rep, I have tons of leftover wine and just recently decided to make my own vinegars. I started with a bottle of Braggs, I whisked every few days, and now a mother has formed on the top of my vinegar after only 2 weeks! My question is; do I leave the mother undisturbed? Or can/should I continue to whisk it occasionally? Any info will be greatly appreciated!

  14. Ben
    Posted October 18, 2013 at 10:47 AM | Permalink

    How can one find out the sulfite amount in purchased wine?

  15. Posted October 18, 2013 at 11:20 AM | Permalink

    Ben, to be honest, I don't know of a way. However, red wines typically have lower sulfites than white wines, and many organic wines say no added sulfites. So those can at least be a relative guide.

  16. Posted December 28, 2013 at 6:53 AM | Permalink

    Great article! I made red wine with family this year and I have about 2 gallons of mother (I think it's called the mother, it's the dredges of the bottom of the carboys we stored the wine in before bottling it). Yikes. Should I just scoop some out. I have a glass gallon jug and some cheese cloth. How would you start?

  17. Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:33 AM | Permalink

    Hi, Ann. The bottom of the jug of wine is probably the lees, which is (to put it bluntly) the deceased yeasts that fermented the wine. It's probably fine to use that, but you'll want to filter out the lees. At least I think so; I'm honestly not sure what the lees would do to the vinegar. You want to start with fully fermented wine, but from there you should be good to go. Hope that helps!

  18. Rick Theis
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 2:53 AM | Permalink

    I did extensive research several years ago and can no longer find my source, but as I understand it, ethyl acetate is created when the alcohol levels are too high. The article suggested adding water. That has worked very well for me. Start with a little, say a cup per gallon and check a week or two later. Add more water if ethyl acetate is still detectable. For some people, a little ethyl acetate is a complexing agent that adds character. I was wine writer in the 70s and ethyl acetate was an occasional flaw in commercial wine way back then and I grew to abhor it. I read another article that suggested heating the wine above 180 degrees (I think) for a brief period of time. It worked except the ethyl acetate smell returned after several weeks. So, I stick with adding water.

  19. Aly
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 1:32 AM | Permalink

    Please excuse my inexperience. I am currently making apple cider vinegar. It was started from some spiked apple cider and Braggs. Approx two weeks ago. Jars sitting on dark shelf, covered w/cheesecloth. Everything was developing beautifully. Solid film of mother but I am getting those ethyl acetate fumes now. As I understand from the most recent post, adding water should help. I also saw the suggestion of whisking every couple days until fumes cease. I was hoping someone could tell me why it is happening? Should my jars be in cooler location? Did I leave them too long? Too much sugar(s) converting to alcohol? Thanks!

  20. Erin
    Posted February 4, 2014 at 3:06 PM | Permalink

    I just started my first batch of red wine vinegar and it was a horrible nail polish remover smell. I've read on here to whisk it to make, but other websites say not to disturb the mother. Please advise me on how to fix this problem.

  21. Posted February 10, 2014 at 5:33 AM | Permalink

    Rick and Aly, Way back when, I traced it to the Fischer-Speier Esterification (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fischer_esterification). The current Wikipedia page isn't very helpful, but it basically looked like a chemical equilibrium in which adding water would push the equilibrium back to the acetic acid side of the fence. Rick, you're certainly right that a bit of detectable ethyl acetate can be desirable — is it Amarone that often has some?

  22. Posted February 10, 2014 at 5:34 AM | Permalink

    Erin, I'm so sorry to hear that. I can only talk about what's worked for me: pulling off the mother, whisking the vinegar, and adding water as necessary. Sometimes the nail polish remover goes away on its own, but if you're getting only that and no vinegar in the mix, you probably want to try to rescue it.

  23. justin
    Posted February 10, 2014 at 9:19 AM | Permalink

    Very nice article. I just made a batch of Apple cider vinegar in a five gallon food grade bucket and it turned out great, I want too make red wine vinegar with the mother after I bottle it. My plan is pull the vinegar from under the mother with a turkey baster and when it is just the mother left in the bucket add my wine and diluting water on top of it and mix it up. Should I sit the mother right up with it or be gentle with it. Thanks?

  24. Posted February 10, 2014 at 9:28 AM | Permalink

    Justin, that should work. Leave a bit of liquid in the jar, since that's where a lot of the bacteria hang out, but it's probably fine. Acetobacter is, largely speaking, Acetobacter. (The only reason to, say, not use red wine vinegar to start cider vinegar is the coloring.) Good luck!

  25. justin
    Posted February 10, 2014 at 10:24 AM | Permalink

    Ok thanks for the advise, I will leave about a half gallon of the Apple cider vinegar in there and add my diluted wine on top of the mother. I'm going from light to dark so no worries about the color.

  26. Allen
    Posted December 23, 2014 at 11:36 PM | Permalink

    this is some really interesting information, I have been a big fan of vinegar for most of my 79-1/2 years… I regularly drink an 8 oz glass of warm water with 2 Tsp of Bragg apple cider vinegar & 1 Tsp of honey before going to bed, it helps with night leg cramps. a few years ago I purchased a couple of cases of fairly good red wine $15.00 $ range, I drank a few, then some of it got buried in the pantry, I opened a bottle a few months age and it had a lot of sediment and didn't taste right, can I use that wine to make vinegar, or should I dump it?

  27. Joe K, Ohio
    Posted January 6, 2015 at 1:02 PM | Permalink

    Derrick, Thank you for the article AND for your comments/answers to our questions. This is a big help!

  28. Melissa
    Posted March 22, 2015 at 1:32 PM | Permalink

    Thanks Rick… very helpful!

  29. Posted May 28, 2015 at 11:41 PM | Permalink

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  30. John Coates
    Posted November 6, 2015 at 9:09 AM | Permalink

    On Amazon, the Mother for sale instructs one to add 2.5ml (1/2 teaspoon) of Hydrogen Peroxide when you start. This allegedly neutralizes the sulfites.

    Anyone heard of this or have experience with it? I added 2.5 ml to a batch as an experiment but I’m 3 months away from a tasting.

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