Make your own Vinegar Mother August 26, 2015 05:30 1 Comment

Apple cider vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is incredibly versatile - drinking cider vinegar is great for your health, and once you make it yourself, it finds all kinds of other uses around the house, from pickling to washing your hair. The trouble is, Bragg's and other beneficial live vinegars aren't cheap. That's one reason I love making my own vinegar! I also love the versatility of making different flavours of vinegar from nearly anything that has sugar (think fruit!) alcohol (think beer or wine) or both!

What is a vinegar mother 

A vinegar mother is a SCOBY - a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast. It looks like a gelatinous blob. It forms in layers near the surface of whatever is turning into vinegar. In that respect, it's similar to kombucha. The bacteria and yeast in a vinegar mother work together to perform two key chemical reactions:

  1. yeast turn sugar into ethanol
  2. bacteria turn ethanol into acetic acid (vinegar)*

*this second reaction requires oxygen. That's why beer and wine won't turn into vinegar in a closed bottle, and why it's possible to wild ferment either without them turning into vinegar, so long as you use an airlock. On the other hand, if you wild ferment grains or fruit for long enough and leave them exposed to air, most of the time you'll get vinegar. The yeast and bacteria you need are naturally present all over the place - on your skin, in your kitchen, and on the grain and fruit you're fermenting.

In fact, if you have unpasteurized fruit juice, you'll need to go out of your way to stop it from turning into vinegar, as I discovered after a cider-pressing festival a few years ago. I accidentally made several liters of great cider vinegar:

homemade apple cider vinegar

Using a vinegar mother

Juicing organic apples and leaving the juice with a towel over it will get you cider vinegar because all the right microbes are there on the apple peel. But what if you're not starting from organic whole fruit? What if, say, you want to add the right microbes to make wine vinegar, or vinegar from fruit juice that's been pasteurized? In that case, you'll need to collect microbes from a healthy, successful vinegar, and put them in whatever you want to ferment. Just about any preservative-free juice or wine is a good candidate. A great way to do this is to add a piece of mother and some vinegar from your previous batch, but in my experience it has to be from a relatively *fresh* previous batch. This is one reason we don't (as of this writing anyway) sell vinegar mothers at the store. If you don't have a scoby or mother that's made vinegar in the last few months, you may want to try your hand at creating a new one from scratch. Here's a method that's worked for me!

Make your own vinegar mother

fresh organic grapes

1. Start with organic fruit. Grapes or apples are the classics. I had harvested these grapes from my backyard a bit early since I was moving, so they're a bit tart to eat, but perfect for vinegar! You want the bacteria and yeast from its skin, so you're not going to wash it. That means any pesticide residues will go straight into your vinegar, potentially harming the microbes... and you!

crushed grapes for vinegar making

2. Crush the fruit up really well. Using a juicer at this stage works well, so long as you don't heat the juice (i.e. no steam-juicers). I moved recently so most of my kitchen stuff is in storage, so I'm using this alternative method: crush the fruit and ferment it on the pulp. Let the fruit or juice ferment for at least a couple weeks. Use a tightly woven cloth or flexible paper (paper towel shown here) to keep out bugs but allow oxygen to seep through.

3. After a few weeks in the jar, strain the pulp through a fine cloth. Obviously, you can skip this if you juiced the fruit in step 1. If you're doing it by hand, you'll get more juice out after a few weeks' fermentation than trying to squeeze fresh fruit through a cloth.

4. if you strained it, return the juice to jars and cover with cloth or paper. Give it a sniff every few weeks to see how vinegary it is and skim off any white fuzz from the surface. Use a clear container so you can see when a gelatinous mother forms.

5. Once you have a mother, you can use it to inoculate more juice or wine! Be careful of wines as they frequently contain microbe-killing preservatives (e.g. sulfites). These stop the wine from carbonating (or turning to vinegar) in the bottle, but also can stop it turning to vinegar in your jar. If in doubt, don't put your whole mother into one jar of wine. Also, don't be tempted to ferment wine vinegar right in the bottle! You'll want to keep your mother for your next batch, so use a wide-mouth container for easy collection. See my counter-example here

UPDATE:

Hey folks, I learned a couple lessons with this one! First off, in the future I will always use at least a full quart of juice. The two smaller (250ml) jars of proto-vinegar pictured above ended up evaporating through their breathable lids before they finished forming scobys (see photo at end).

It's also *much* easier to see what's going on with apple juice rather than grape. Take a look at this photo series starting after last apple season:

fresh apple ciderLeft over cider from the East Van Press Fest last October 30th. Nice and cloudy because it's extra fresh!

raw cider after one weekAfter one week, the cider is just starting to clear! I skimmed some of the debris off the top. I've been keeping a cloth over the top to keep out curious flies.

raw cider after two weeksAfter two weeks it's really clearing up nicely - and a white layer is forming on top!

scoby forming after two weeksAnother angle from the same day. That white scummy layer on top is great news - it's a vinegar mother forming!

five week old raw cider vinegar motherAfter five weeks, the cider vinegar is really clearing up and a solid scoby has formed on top. Note also the lower level in the jar! Some of that is from sampling and some from evaporation. It smells and taste like vinegar - funky vinegar! A few weeks or even longer helps the flavour mellow.

scoby on raw cider vinegar after five weeksAnother angle from the same day - note the *much* thicker scoby/mother on top. Nice uniform whitish color is good - any color is not good. If you get mould, colored or otherwise - scoop it off and hope a pure white one grows in its place.

the vinegar familyHere's the whole vinegar family, left to right: two sad dried-up vinegar jars, a three year old scoby (yes, it's thick!) and a 5.5 week old vinegar mother from this past October.

I keep a cloth over the top to deter bugs, but from what I can tell it's actually helpful to get some air flow in there from time to time. The culture needs oxygen to thrive, so disturbing it regularly seems to help. Tasting a teensy bit a couple times a week is a good way to build this into your routine. The only time I've ever had this *not* work was when I was very particular about keeping it covered and not disturbing the young scoby.