Tart, sour, acidic, harsh: four words that don’t exactly make our mouth water. Unfortunately, they’re often words that come to mind when tasting moderately-priced red wine vinegar that we’ve bought at the store. Even more disappointing is that immoderately-priced bottles aren’t often much better. This isn’t the case with balsamic vinegar – we’re willing to splurge now and then on a bottle of good balsamic imported from Italy because we know we can’t replicate the smooth, syrupy results at home. But red wine vinegar is a different story. By taking matters into your own hands, you can make red wine vinegar that is often much better than what you can buy. Better yet, the whole process is much easier than you might think.
It does, however, require patience. About two months from start to finish. In fact, we’re currently waiting for a batch to reach maturity and find ourselves eagerly ticking off the days until we can whisk it into vinaigrette. This sort of giddy anticipation is a big part of why we love making our own food at home. If all goes well with the vinegar currently sitting in a crock in our cupboard, we’re expecting the flavor to be a bit fruity and earthy; mellow and not overpowered by sharp acidity.
The flavor of the red wine you use will directly affect the flavor of the vinegar. This doesn’t mean the wine has to be expensive, it just means it has to be wine that tastes good to you. The next step, finding a good mother, can be a little more complicated. Relax – this step doesn’t involve psychoanalyzing your relationship with dear ol’ mom; we’re talking about an entirely different type of mother.
A mother of vinegar is a thin film of slimy, gelatinous bacteria that encourages fermentation. If you’ve bought a bottle of raw apple cider vinegar, you’ve probably seen a leftover mother floating in the bottom of the jar. This bacteria has the more scientific name of mycoderma aceti but calling it a mother is so much more poetic. You can attempt to turn red wine into vinegar by just letting it sit on your counter without a mother, but you’re likely to have tastier results with the help of some starter bacteria. The magical thing about mothers is that during the fermentation process they give “birth” to other mothers that can be used in future batches of vinegar. People who regularly make their own vinegar can use new generations of one mother to make vinegar for decades. Mothers can even be passed on to friends as a floating blob suspended in a little liquid – usually wine diluted with water. Beer and wine making stores also sell vinegar mothers for around $10. If you can’t find a store in your area, online stores  also sell mothers that are specific to making red, white, malt and cider vinegar.
Other than a mixture of wine, water and a mother, the only other supplies you’ll need are a 1-2 gallon vessel to ferment the vinegar and some cheesecloth. A ceramic crock works well because it keeps out damaging light, but a jar wrapped with cloth or paper to keep out the light could work, too. Covering the top of the vessel with cheesecloth keeps insects out, but lets air get in to feed the bacteria. Tucked away in a warm, dark place, the magical transformation into tasty red wine vinegar will begin. Months later, you’ll be rewarded and we think you’ll agree, it’s worth the wait.
There are people who swear that the best vinegar comes from adding exact amounts of wine over a specific period of time and people who swear that measuring is pointless. This second, more adventurous camp simply pours wine into their crock (which has a mother floating inside) whenever they have wine leftover in a bottle. This approach keeps a continuous batch of vinegar brewing, but you have less control over the process.
If you’d like a more methodical approach, the recipe we’ve always followed to make vinegar is based on one from food writer Paula Wolfert .
Ingredients and Supplies:
- 2 cups red wine to begin, plus 7 1/2 cups more over the next few weeks
- 1 cup filtered water
- 8-ounce jar of purchased vinegar mother
- 1-2 gallon earthenware crock or glass jar (ideally with a spigot)
- A small square of cheesecloth
Combine 2 cups wine, the water and mother in the crock. Cover the crock with two layers of cheesecloth and secure the cloth with a rubber band around the neck of the crock.
Store the crock in a dark, warm place (ideal temperature for vinegar is between 70-80 degrees). A kitchen cabinet that is not opened frequently should work well.
Let the vinegar sit a week, then over the course of the next week add 2 1/2 cups of wine to the vinegar on three different days (for a total of 7 1/2 more cups of wine). If a thin, web-like veil has formed on top of the liquid, try not to disturb it when you add the wine. This layer is good bacteria forming, a new mother so to speak. Consider using a funnel or turkey baster to add the wine slowly so the bacteria is not disturbed.
Leave the vinegar alone for around two months, although the real test of when vinegar is done is when it tastes good to you. You can steal little tastes while it ferments  (which is why a spigot on your crock is ideal) to see how the vinegar is doing. If the vinegar takes on an aroma like nail polish, unfortunately this means it has gone bad and the only thing to do is start over.
When you declare the vinegar done, strain it through a coffee filter to remove any sediment and store it a sterilized glass bottle. You can also keep the vinegar in its crock and simply take straight from the crock as needed and continue to add wine (about a cup or so a week) to keep the vinegar continuously going.
Bacteria in the crock will multiply over time, creating new mothers that will be floating around. “Older” mothers that sink to the bottom and take up room in the crock can be fished out carefully with bare, clean hands.