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Making Vinegar From Scratch

Cider vinegarVinegar has many uses, many of which can be attested to by our grandmothers as well as modern day make-do and naturally minded folks. But where does vinegar come from? How is it made? Whatever will we do if for some reason vinegar becomes unavailable in the stores?

Homemade vinegar is a result of fermentation.  Some would say it’s a result of over-fermentation, as vinegar is what your alcohol will turn into if left too long and without preservatives. But we’re making vinegar on purpose here.  Fermentation is a somewhat lost art that is making a return as people realize the benefits of this method of food preservation.  Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, and Fermentation Factor from Solutions from Science are all excellent resources to use in learning how to ferment your own foods, vinegar being one of them.

Vinegar is, according to my dictionary description, “an acid liquid obtained by the acetous fermentation of alcoholic liquids, as cider, beer, wine, etc., and used as a condiment and preservative.” So, basically, you get your hands on or create some form of alcohol (without preservatives) and then let it ferment further, hopefully catching the right bacteria (Acetobacter) along the way, creating acetic acid. Acetic acid is, essentially, pure non-diluted vinegar.

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning…

There are many ways to make vinegar, as it has been around for thousands of years.  But we don’t want to simply make vinegar, we want to make vinegar from scratch, assuming that if the worst happens, we may not be able to make a quick run to the grocery or wine supply store for quickie helps in making our vinegar.  A “how to make vinegar” article will be of no help if you don’t have access to the supplies, now will it?

There are many variations on these instructions, as is typical with something that has been around for over a thousand years.  These instructions should get you started from the beginning, with things most people have available in their kitchens, and with no winemaking supplies, no “cheats” such as yeast packets, “mother,” or any vinegar to pour in to get things started. We will be truly making vinegar from scratch.

General Info To Know

1. Cleanliness Is Imperative.  You want to have the least chance possible of having the wrong bacteria get into your fermentation process. Use hot water—bleach if you have it—to thoroughly clean anything that comes into contact with what will become your vinegar. Don’t forget to wash your hands, too.

2. No Metal Containers. Do not make vinegar in a metal container (except for stainless steel), as the vinegar will react with the metal, imparting a metallic taste to your end product and creating a poison. Stainless steel should be safe, but definitely do not use aluminum or non-enameled cast iron. If you choose to use enameled cast iron, check for cracks and chips in the enamel where the vinegar would have access to the metal.  If you find any cracks or chips, find another vessel.

3. Don’t Skimp On The Sugar. The more sugars in your first stage, the stronger your alcohol and consequent vinegar will be and the better it is said to keep.  That said, it is not an exact science and recommended amounts of sugar will vary, as will the naturally occurring sugars in your food source.

4. If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.  When starting from the very basics, there is a greater risk of not catching the right bacteria and having a bad batch. Once you have caught the proper bacteria, though, you will then have vinegar and possibly even a mother to help ease your future vinegar-making experiences. To ease your mind a bit, if you are not using free or cheap supplies, start with a smaller batch.  When you have success with that, move up to larger batches.

Make “Off-The-Grid” Super Foods Secretly In Your Home

Most vinegar made by homesteaders is apple cider vinegar (or some variation thereof), probably because of the fairly simple method and availability of apples as raw materials. Keep in mind that this is a fermentation process; quality of vinegar and the time it takes to make it will vary with your situation and the conditions of where you are setting up your vinegar production.

Apple Scrap Vinegar

One method of making vinegar is to use raw fruit scraps, such as cores and peels of apples.   Instead of apples, you may also use peelings and corings of pears, peaches, grapes, and even whole cherries.  Anything you are cutting up to can or preserve some other way can yield much of the raw material for making vinegar. Bruised or overripe fruit is acceptable, but mold is not.

Stage 1: Making Alcohol

What you need:

  • Fruit scraps or corings
  • Large container such as a crock, large glass jar, or stainless steel pan
  • Sugar water (general guideline is 1/4 cup sweetener of choice per 1 quart of water, more or less depending on the sweetness of your fruit. You may use white sugar, molasses, honey, raw sugar, etc.)
  • Cloth, such as cheesecloth or a flour sack towel
  • Bungee cord or twine

1. Place your fruit scraps into your container.

2. Pour in enough sugar water to cover the fruit.

3. Cover the container with the cloth and bungee tie it so that it is secure and keeps out flies and such.

4. Place in an area that is around 65-80°F. The cooler the temperature, the longer it will take for your fruit to ferment, but it should still work. Allow to sit for about a week, checking on it each day.

5. As the process begins, it should produce bubbles. Don’t let this worry you, as it’s all part of the process.  Allow it to continue to “work” until the bubbling stops. The liquid should have darkened by this point, and it should be ready for the next stage.

Stage 2: Converting Alcohol To Acetic Acid (Vinegar)

What you need:

  • Strainer
  • Cheesecloth
  • Wide-topped container(s) (You may reuse the container you used the first time or use a glass sun tea jar with a spigot on the bottom to make it easier to put the finished product in bottles/jars later.)
  • Cloth, such as cheesecloth or a flour sack towel

1. Strain your liquid from the fruit, using a strainer and cheesecloth.

2. Place liquid in wide-topped container(s). This is important, as the acetic bacteria need lots of oxygen to do their work.

3. Cover with cheesecloth or towel as before.

4. Store in a warm place with faint light. Direct sunlight will prevent the vinegar-making process.

5. Pray. When you are making vinegar from absolutely basic ingredients, you are at the mercy of mother nature providing the proper bacteria to change your alcohol over to vinegar. The good news is that this bacteria is widely available in the air (and on the feet of vinegar flies). The bad news is that, especially if you are living in the hot, humid South, there may be other bacteria that might decide to take residence in your alcohol.  If you have a fairly high-alcohol mixture to begin with, this should limit the “bad” bacteria from moving in.

6. Watch and wait. How long depends on how soon your alcohol solution catches the bacteria, the temperature of the room, and oxygen availability. It can happen as soon as a couple weeks or take as long as 6 months.  Dip a spoon into it ever so often and give it a taste to judge where you are in the process.

7. Keep an eye out for surface film, a.k.a. “mother.” If you see a greyish-brownish film forming on the surface of your liquid, this is the “mother” forming. It will look somewhat like a Kombucha scoby, if that gives you a frame of reference. This is a good sign that you have caught the proper bacteria! Don’t disturb it as it does its work, as it needs to stay on the surface until it is finished. Once the job of making the vinegar is done, it will sink to the bottom of the container.  For future vinegar-making ventures, you can use this “mother,” adding it during Stage 2 to get a significant jumpstart on the vinegar-making stage, since you will already have the necessary bacteria. The “mother” will thicken as it grows and ages.

Storage

Once you have your vinegar, strain it through cheesecloth to your liking and store it in bottles/ jars of your choice in a cool, dry place.  Remember not to use metal lids where the metal will come into contact with the vinegar.  You can store some of the “mother” in your jars with your vinegar, or you can use it to start another batch right away.

NEVER pay a fortune for expensive “green” cleaning products!

Want To Try Something A Little Different?

Down to Earth has posted instructions as to how to make pineapple vinegar using a similar method to the one above.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is just what it sounds like: vinegar made from apple cider. This is a somewhat simpler process than the apple scrap vinegar, if you have access to a cider press.

The Simple Method: Open Jug On The Countertop

You do have the option of merely leaving your jug of fresh apple cider open for four to six weeks and allowing it to turn to alcohol and then to vinegar. If you do it this way, you risk the wrong types of bacteria getting into your jug and ruining your batch. But, it is entirely possible to make vinegar in this way. The simplest method might be just fine for many folks.

The More Complex Method: Making Hard Cider (Alcohol) And Converting It To Vinegar

Whether you’ve had luck or not with the open-jug method, it is still good to know the more involved method of how to make apple cider vinegar. The more information you have, the better prepared you’ll be if tough times ever hit!

Stage 1: Making Hard Cider (Alcohol)

What you need:

  • A method of crushing or juicing the apples
  • Strainer
  • Cheesecloth
  • Gallon jug(s) (preferably glass—some apple juice still comes in glass jars)
  • Airlock, homemade (instructions follow) or purchased

1. Crush your apples and press them to remove the juice.

2. Pour juice into clean gallon-sized jug(s) and seal with an airlock. If you do not have an airlock, you can make one from a corn cob that is the right size to stopper the jug and a piece of hollowed vine that you insert through the corn cob and into the jug. To the opposite end of the hollowed vine, attach a piece of rubber or plastic tubing, the end of which should be placed in a bowl of water. This setup should allow the carbon dioxide that forms during the fermentation process to escape the jug (and into the bowl of water), yet not allow any oxygen or bacteria back into the jug. A simper, old-timer solution for an airlock is a pin-pricked balloon stretched over the jug opening.  A rubber glove or similar should also work, as long as it is secured to the jug and doesn’t let air in.

3. Allow the jug(s) to sit at room temperature for up to six weeks.

4. Bubbles will form, and a scum should form on the top of the juice solution. This is normal, and a sign that nature it doing its work.

5. Once the bubbling stops and sediment has settled on the bottom of the jug(s), this is the sign that you have made hard cider and are ready for the next stage.

Stage 2: Converting Hard Cider To Apple Cider Vinegar

What you need:

  • Wide-mouth containers (The more surface area available, the quicker the vinegar will be made. Again, a couple of sun tea jars would work well.)
  • Cloth, such as cheesecloth or a flour sack towel
  • Bungee cord or twine for tying down cheesecloth/ towel

1. Divide your hard cider between your containers. If you have any “mother,” now is the time to add it, placing some on a piece of corncob to float it on the top. This is not necessary to making vinegar, but it quickens the process and is good to know for future batches.

2. Cover container(s) with cheesecloth and secure it with bungee cord or twine. You need the oxygen and exposure to air at this point to feed the acetic bacteria.

3. Allow the hard cider to sit at room temperature, generally around 70-80°F, until the acetic bacteria find your mixture and get the ball rolling.  The time for this to happen varies widely, but once you have success and get a “mother” to form, your future waiting times will be substantially less.

4. Taste your solution ever so often to see if it is vinegary enough for you.  Be sure not to disturb the “mother” too much, as it needs to remain on the surface until it is finished doing its work.

Storage

Once the vinegar has reached an acceptable tastiness for your liking, strain it through cheesecloth into clean containers. Remember to reserve your mother, and make sure no metal touching the vinegar in the storage container.

Raspberry Vinegar

If you have a large harvest of berries (raspberry or otherwise), you might think about using some of them to try making a berry vinegar.

Stage 1: Make The Berry Alcohol

What you need:

  • Six cups water
  • Nine cups fresh berries (you will need them in three-cup increments over the next three days)
  • Container suitable for fermenting
  • Cloth, such as cheesecloth or a flour sack towel
  • Bungee cord or twine

1. Day One. Pour six cups water over three cups fresh berries. Cover with the cheesecloth or towel and secure with the bungee cord or twine. Allow to sit twenty-four hours.

2. Day Two. Strain off and reserve the water and discard the fruit pulp.  Clean your container, put three cups of fresh berries in the container, and return the water to the container. Cover with cheesecloth and the container allow to sit for another twenty-four hours.

3. Day Three. Repeat the steps from day two and allow to sit twenty-four hours.

Stage 2: Convert The Berry Alcohol To Vinegar

What you need:

  • Cheesecloth or strainer
  • One pound of sugar

1. This should be day four of your berry vinegar-making adventure.  Strain the berry alcohol from the berries and get rid of the berry pulp.  Return the berry alcohol to your container.

2. Stir in the sugar, making sure it is completely dissolved.

3. Cover the container with cheesecloth and secure it with cord or twine.

4. Allow the liquid to stand at room temperature until it turns to vinegar, which should take about four to six weeks.

Honey Vinegar

One of the oldest types of alcohol is mead, which is wine made from honey. As we know, the first step of making vinegar is making an alcohol, so it is possible to make vinegar using honey.

The following information was pulled from “The Production of Vinegar from Honey,” a book published in 1905 and reposted on Squidoo.  Many of these old-time recipes have become lost or out of print and are not yet widely available, so I am happy to see when someone shares the information from an old resource.

Honey vinegar can be made for the purposes of culinary and medicinal use.  Use one part honey to seven or eight parts water, by weight.

What you need:

  • Honey and boiling water for the proper ratio to fill your container with some extra headspace above
  • Container suitable for fermenting
  • Cloth, such as cheesecloth or a flour sack towel
  • Bungee cord or twine

1. Mix the honey and water and pour into a clean container.

2. Cover container with cheesecloth or a clean flour sack towel and secure.

3. If you have it available, add a bit of yeast or vinegar. Adding the yeast and/or vinegar helps kick-start the process and get the proper bacteria going, but it is not absolutely necessary.

4. Allow the mixture to sit, undisturbed, in a room that is about 70-80°F until it turns to vinegar. The waiting time will vary greatly, as you are waiting for the proper bacteria to find your honey mixture.

5. Once your honey mixture turns to alcohol and then vinegar, you can strain it, bottle or jar it, and store it indefinitely. (Again, no metal lids touching the vinegar.)

To Pasteurize Or Not To Pasteurize?

If you pasteurize your vinegar, you will not be able to use it to help jumpstart your future vinegar-making ventures. This is because the heating of the vinegar kills the active bacteria  (and also reduces some of the health benefits). However, you may want to pasteurize at least some of your vinegar if you have a large quantity of it and you do not have a cool, dry place in which to store it. Pasteurizing the vinegar will prevent the mother from forming and causing your vinegar to cloud as it ferments further in storage.

To pasteurize your vinegar, place your unsealed bottles or jugs of vinegar in a pan of cool water. If you wish to remove all sediment and particles, leaving a clear vinegar, strain the vinegar through three layers of cheesecloth, then bottle it and place the bottles in a pan of water.  Heat slowly, bringing the vinegar up to about 145°F, holding it at that temperature for about thirty minutes. Cool and seal. Store at room temperature.

Can I Use Homemade Vinegar For Canning?

The vinegar we purchase from the grocery has been diluted down to about 5 percent acidity and is suitable for canning.  It is not recommended that you use homemade vinegar for canning, as your vinegar may not be strong enough to kill off bad bacteria (vinegar’s role in modern pickling), and there is potential of blowing up your jars if the vinegar continues to ferment after sealing.  Now, if you want to break the “can’t go to the wine making supply store” rule, you can purchase an acid titration kit and test your vinegar (with vinegar testing instructions, not wine testing instructions) to be sure it has the recommended acidity of at least 4.5 percent (the percentage recommended for killing off bacteria). I personally would still be wary of using homemade vinegar for canning, though.

Want Stronger Vinegar?

To strengthen the vinegar, place it in the freezer and remove the water that has frozen on the top.

This should give you a pretty good starting point to get some vinegar going and then you can branch off into other types that require a bit of vinegar or ”mother” to get things rolling sooner. If your first batch doesn’t make vinegar from scratch, don’t get discouraged! We are at the mercy of mother nature and the proper bacteria to begin with, but it is out there and you should eventually catch the proper vinegar-making Acetobacter and be in vinegar-making business!

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for this article. I have made wine vinegar from leftover wine but had no idea how to start from “scratch” for other vinegars. This is a very valuable article.

  2. How long can you store the “mother”. Such as putting the mother in a pint jar with some homemade vinegar and leaving it in my pantry (65 degrees and dark).

    • Carrie-
      Since it is a living thing, it will vary. The mother should last for quite some time in the conditions you described. I would check on it periodically and add more vinegar if it has grown too much for the vinegar originally put in the jar.

      If stored at cooler temps and with a lid on the container, the mother may go dormant. Once you take it out to use it, though, she(should I use a gender? lol) should wake up and get to work on your alcohol and make more vinegar.

      Too hot temperatures and freezing temperatures will kill the mother, so keep away from those things.

      Hope that helps some!

  3. I have experience brewing kombucha and have a kombucha mother and scoobies available to me. Can I use a scoobie from kombucha mother to help kick start vinegar, or do I need a new one. Also if I happen to forget my kombucha for a few months that I started with sweetened black tea, will that eventually turn to vinegar

  4. I have been looking for an article this detailed for a long time. The only problem is, in my area, I don’t have access to apples, raspberries OR honey. Can’t vinegar also be made from potatoes? If so, do you have the directions for that?

    Thanks!

  5. I would like to start my own vinegar plant but I don’t know how could send me the recipe my mother used to make it but thought she started it with brown sugar and molasses & water would you please send me the recipe so I could start my own thank-you verna

  6. How do you know when you *don’t* have the right bacteria growing and you have a bad batch? I would have no clue. (And I don’t like to taste vinegar at all, but I love using it to clean.)

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