Making Vinegar at Home: The Essential Guide Part I (The Basics)

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Making Vinegar, Mother of Vinegar21 Comments

Vinegar mother in a jar

A healthy mother growing on red wine—note I do not recommend narrow neck jars for making vinegar; this is illustrative only

So, you like vinegar. Not just the store white distilled brand but many types. Or maybe you just love apple cider vinegar and hate the bland tasting store brand. Home made vinegar is a lot like garden grown vegetables: yours always tastes better. There are many reasons that homemade vinegars can be great but a big one is you don’t have to use the lowest cost cider or wine like large manufacturers. You can use the $20 bottle of wine that no mass producer would touch with a 10 foot pole. Or the cider from the local orchard store. How about the strawberries from the bush in your backyard? The possibilities are endless.

I would be remiss to say there are a lot of guides online to making vinegar. Their quality ranges from excellent to awful and misleading. This several part series will hope to be the former type and give you a good and detailed guide on making vinegar. I make it regularly from small to large production batches and know many of the secrets, tricks, and pitfalls.

What is vinegar?

This is a basic but good starting question. Most people will think vinegar is “spoiled wine” or spoiled cider. In fact, the term vinegar comes from the French vin aigre or sour wine. What vinegar essentially is though is acetic acid. Like wine is ethyl alcohol in water (with flavor of course), vinegar is acetic acid in water. Acetic acid (named for acetum the Latin name for vinegar) is a relatively weak acid but one that can nonetheless corrode quickly. It is harmless and even healthy for us in small concentrations.

How is vinegar made?

Most people know yeast make alcohol by fermenting sugar but very few know the deed for vinegar is done by bacteria. These are good bacteria, not the type that make us sick. Acetic acid bacteria (AAB) are the workhorses of all vinegar fermentation forming the famous ‘mother of vinegar’ and using oxygen in the air to convert alcohol to acetic acid. Caring for AAB and understanding their needs is crucial to a successful vinegar fermentation.

Vinegar: Acidity is to vinegar as ABV is to alcohol

Most people know that alcohol content is measured in alcohol by volume (ABV). Beer is weak, around 4-5% while wine is typically 12%-14%. Vodkas and rums are 40% or so. The ‘proof’ system of measurement is just the ABV times two so 40% ABV vodka is 80 proof.

Vinegar has similar measurement system known as acidity. Typical store bought vinegar is 5% acidity. The legal minimum in almost every country is 4%. Typically, the highest acidity vinegar is wine vinegar which can be 7-8%. Acidity is measured in grams of acetic acid per 100 mL. So a 5% white distilled vinegar has 5 g of acetic acid per 100 mL of water. Vinegar also has an alternate measurement system like proof known as ‘grain’. Grain is calculated by multiplying the acidity times 10. So 5% vinegar is 50 grain vinegar. The grain system is mainly used by manufacturers, however, and almost never listed on a retail label. The term grain comes from the old days in the 19th century where the vinegar acidity was measured by how many grains (about 1/15th of a gram) of a strong base (like sodium hydroxide) it took to neutralize it. Granted the volume of vinegar and strength of the base were standardized so everyone go the same amount of grains in neutralizing vinegar of a given strength and quantity.

What about pH?

The most common way to measure acidity is pH and this is done with a pH meter. Most substances have pH readings in the range of 1 to 14 where a pH below 7 is considered acidic and a pH above 7 is considered basic. pH is a logarithmic scale so a vinegar with a pH of 3 is 10 times as acidic as one with a pH of 4. We measure pH with vinegar primarily to determine if it is safe. A pH below 4 is essential to guarantee harmful bacteria and mold will not contaminate our vinegar. However, never try to estimate acidity with pH. The relationship between acidity and pH varies by type of vinegar and is not consistent. We will cover this in more detail in a subsequent post.

How much alcohol to make vinegar of a given acidity?

The rule of thumb is in vinegar fermentation, for every 1% ABV of the starting alcohol you can get 1% acidity in the final vinegar. In practice you get about 0.8% acidity for every 1% ABV due to various losses. However it is a good way to start. So if you want 5% vinegar it is best to start with at least 6.25% ABV alcohol.

How strong can I make vinegar?

Typically, the AAB will not ferment anything with greater than 10% ABV so 8-9% is typically the upper level home fermenters can hope for and even this level takes time with batches of successively increasing strength.

What can I make into vinegar?

Anything you can make into alcohol! This includes juices (grape, cider, or any other fruit), cereals (the origin of malt vinegar and many Chinese vinegars) and even starchy foods like sweet potatoes though you have to convert the starch of the cereals or tubers into sugar first. Also sweet liquids like maple syrup, honey, and coconut juice are also candidates.

The trick is to get it to alcohol first, usually by adding yeast. In the next segment we will discuss the basics of making vinegar by starting on how to get your alcohol ready, or how to make alcohol from juices or starches to make vinegar!

21 Comments on “Making Vinegar at Home: The Essential Guide Part I (The Basics)”

  1. Pingback: Selbst gemachter, hausgemachter Essig – der qualitative Vorsprung | Portionsdiät

  2. I made some home made vinegar for the first time using Braggs ACV as a starter. I used an unusual fruit (sapote) to see if it would work. Two months later i have a beautiful disc (mother) and have strained the fruit off. The liquid ‘vinegar’ doesn’t taste acidic at all. Very mild; I’m disappointed. Not sure where I went wrong. The ‘mother’ looks good but the liquid is not ‘vinegary’ at all. Please help! Thanks, Garrett

    1. Did you add brewer yeast to ferment the sapote juice to alcohol? If not, I think two months was not enough time, especially since you are using wild yeast simultaneously to ferment the sapote juice. I would think 3-4 months minimum for fermentation, potentially as long as 6 months depending on conditions. Let the mother re-grow and continue fermentation.

  3. I made 30 gallons of Zinfandel wine in 2016 . I did not protect it well enough and is has some VA taste and will not make good wine. Might it make good enough vinegar or should I just toss it out?
    It has 14ppm free sulfite currently. Is this level of sulfites ok for making vinegar or do I need to get it lower by pumping over a bit or adding hydrogen peroxide? I intend to use this vinegar to acetify a new battery of wood barrels for making balsamic vinegar so it doesn’t have to be great tasting as I will dump it out at the end of a couple of months and re-fill with the good stuff but I want to make sure I am not going to screw up the good stuff by using vinegar made from unperfect wine.
    Thanks for a great site with so much information!

    1. It should make great vinegar if it was made as drinkable wine. 14ppm free sulfite is low and should be fine for vinegar making but if you are unsure you could add 2 tablespoons of 3% hydrogen peroxide and stir in. That should be fine given the low sulfite level.

      The imperfect wine will not screw up the balsamic fermentation process but some residual Zinfandel taste will be absorbed by the wood. The same bacteria will work fine in both situations. Let me know if this helps.

  4. Dear

    I have trouble calculatıng the acıdıty of a homemade vınegar. ı make apple cider vinegar from apple cıder juıce : I add 60% real apple cider juice with 40% pure water with 4% sugar for each liter of combined water and apple juice added:. so 40gram sugar for 1 liter (water+apple juice)

    normally sugar in apples is around 5% or 6% .plus 4% sugar per liter :my question is?
    is it correct to calculate the acidit straightforward? means i add 4% percent of sugar to %5 of sugar in apples and consider that if the whole sugar will be transformed to acid (by two phases fermentation) and consider the final acidity as 9%:

    1. Hi, thanks for your question. It is straightforward to calculate acidity from alcohol volume by volume but no so straightforward for sugar content. Following your recipe above, if you assume 50 g of sugar from apples plus 40 grams of sugar added per liter, you have 90g sugar/liter or 9 Brix. This gives you a potential alcohol of 4.7% which could give you 4.7% acidity in a perfect world but you would likely end up at 4% acidity after losses due to evaporation, etc. I would add a bit more sugar–60g/L to get 11 Brix and you should get potential alcohol of 5.8% which would give you a vinegar likely near 5% (5.8% max acidity). Does this help?

  5. I have a book called Acid Trip. It’s a Vinegar Book..in the book he says to.make the make the alcohol with a Brix from 19 to 23, and I did. This yealded me with very high Alcohol level. I’m at 11% and the brix is still at 5 (started at 19)

    How can I use this 11% pineapple Alchol to to make vinegar? It’s too high you say. I want flavor, of the pineapple in the vinegar, I’m afraid I’ve ruined my patch and am going to have to add water to lower the ABV to 8%. And this will water down my flavor.

    Like I said I’m at brix 5 right now, that means it can keep fermenting and increasing in ABV. How do I stop the fermentation?

    1. Hi Mr. Shue, thanks for your email! Potential alcohol tables usually indicate 11% alcohol for a Brix of 19 but it is an approximation. The way yeast are usually stopped is potassium sorbate from a homebrew store but if you don’t want to use a chemical additive, adding 1/4 by volume of raw vinegar to start the vinegar fermentation usually ups the acidity above 1% and kills off the yeast.

      Adding sufficient raw vinegar (about 1/4 by volume) will lower the alcohol content and allow the vinegar fermentation to get started. You will get a high acidity of 9-10% but it will be good vinegar, however, with likely a percent or two residual alcohol left over. However, you would then have to cut it 1:1 to get typical 5-6% acidity vinegar which may reduce the taste which is your main concern. Right now could you dilute it with pineapple juice and then add your mother?

  6. Can you give me some advice for my first attempt at homemade vinegar? In July of last year I gathered some homemade wine we had been given and began the process. After about 3 months I had a very small mother that has grown into a healthy disc. The process is taking place in a cool, dark basement and the vinegar is developing in a green glass jug – I think 2-3 gallon size. Yesterday I tasted it and it definitely has a pleasant vinegar taste but very mild. What are my next steps? Specifically,
    1. How do I care for the mother?
    2. How do I test the vinegar for acidity and bacteria? I think it is safe but want to make sure.
    3. How do I siphon off the vinegar to use and share and how should that be stored?
    4. Would a wooden barrel be best?

    If you have a book reference that would be better for me to gather this information from, please suggest a title.

    Thank you,
    Judee

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment. To answer your questions:
      1. If the mother is there, just make sure it has oxygen and a warm environment. Don’t move or shake it or it will sink. That is all you really need to do.
      2. You can test for pH and under 3.6 or so is definitely safe but to find acidity you have to send it to a wine lab or titrate it yourself. 4% is the industry minimum for “done” vinegar.
      3. You can remove it however you’d like just leave about 1/3 and add new wine (sulfites removed) of the same 1/3 volume to start a new batch.
      4. Wooden barrels are best for aging, not necessarily fermentation. Once it is done you can use a wooden barrel to age it but make sure the barrel is sized so you can fill it completely–you don’t want any air space since fermentation needs to stop during aging.

      As far as books, there unfortunately aren’t many and the ones that cover the slow process are hard to find. The Schmickl and Malle book on Artisinal Vinegar Making is good but somewhat technical and focused on the ‘quick’ packed generator process. It is the most comprehensive book though. You can also look at this free manual from 100 years ago that can help

  7. I found a volume of scoby in my homemade apple cider vinegar. Is the acv still good to drink?
    What can you use the ACV Scoby for ?

    1. What you found in the vinegar is a ‘mother’ (SCOBY is a kombucha term when yeast are also involved). It is perfectly safe to eat and some think it may have health benefits. Store it using the instructions here and it can help you make more vinegar in the future.

  8. Hi i just started making vinegar i was just wondering how long should i leave the batch to turn to vinegar after the yeast has done its job, i have googled so many give weeks month i have no mother to add into the jars. and i am not in a hurry for it to be ready weeks ?s months ? what would you recommend, timescale ?

    1. For a first batch you should allow 2-3 months. Sometimes, especially in a warm environment around 95 degrees or so, it can get done in 1-2 months but usually only secondary batches made with a lot of raw vinegar go that fast.

  9. Reggie:
    I made a nice maple syrup/honey mead and it went wild for 10 days. After that, I was worried about too much alcohol so I diluted a gallon to a gallon and a half and added the bottom 1/2” of the cider with mother.

    It’s been sitting on a high shelf for almost three weeks doing nothing but evaporating. It’s in a large mouth glass cookie jar with a cheesecloth over the top. Smells like alcohol and yeast. Nothing growing on it. Just sitting. The yeast has all settled. I’m getting no bubbles. Clear and clearing.

    I’m thinking about trying another rehydration and adding a real mother like you sell. But I have no idea how much alcohol I have and how much water I should add. Also, I have it in the house which is a controlled 72. I could take it out in the shed which is 95. Any thoughts and do you have a mother for mead?

    Thanks

    1. The house temperature should be ok. 95 is too hot and you shouldn’t let it have direct sun exposure due to UV. 85 degrees is the sweet spot (maybe your garage?)

      Alcohol is tricky since it was wild yeast. I would guess their alcohol tolerance is low so you should be relatively ok but if it was 15%+ ABV mead, the alcohol may still be too high. Did you measure the specific gravity before and after fermentation? If it is over 8% alcohol it is harder to start a batch. There may be no way of telling unless you contact a wine lab.

      The first mother of a brand new cycle of batches takes anywhere from 3-6 weeks due to a variety of factors in my experience. Also, I have experience with honey and maple and they are sugar abundant but nutrient poor. The dead yeast should remedy that though if still in the jar. How much mother did you add?

  10. Hi! Thanks for all the tips! I started a new batch of ACV about a month ago, and I thought I had it covered well, but now I see fruit flies / and larve and my jar. The mother is about 1/4 inch thick. Should I through out the whole batch, or is tr here something I can do to save it? Thank you!

    1. Fruit flies are yucky but unfortunately common. You have to close anything with vinegar TIGHT while still allowing it to breathe.

      They are not harmful though. It is your decision. If you are not averse to removing the mother, and wiping away any eggs/pupae cases (the brown things that look like mini rice hulls) and covering it tightly, a new mother should form over time and continue fermentation. You may want to strain it after removing the mother to make sure dead flies/larvae aren’t sitting at the bottom.

  11. Hi Reginald,
    For many years we have made vinegar with a 1:1 mixture of dry and sweet red wine with 10-12% ABV. We have never been concerned about sulphite removal or correction of alcohol content. Lately, my mom was trying to produce vinegar from white wine, so she slowly replaced the red wine by the white one. The last batch, made only with white wine, tasted like vinegar, but she noticed gas bubbles and a little of foam, which were never observed in red wine vinegar. Also, she noticed some opaque white spots in a red-brownish mother of vinegar that remained at the bottom of the jar. A younger MoV was not formed at the surface this time. It isn´t definitely mold, but looks like bacterial or other microorganism colonies adapting to the new substrate (that is just an assumption…). I wonder if we can recover the production with this MoV, since she didn´t have any backup culture, or should we keep it with the white wine. Thanks for any suggestion!

    1. Hi Ioná, sorry for the delay. If what you have historically done works, don’t feel the need to change it. My recommendations are to cover the most situations possible. Sulfite removal necessity depends on the wine. If the wines you are mixing have been open for a while or have low sulfites to begin with, maybe it isn’t necessary. Some these days have a lot of sulfites so I just give the general recommendation to cover all cases. 10-12% ABV is a grey zone which can ferment if you have the right strain/species of acetic acid bacteria. In general though, 7-10% is the max slow fermentation strains can do. If you can go higher, make sure you keep the mother since starting over you may get a less tolerant bacteria that can’t take the ABV.

      Regarding your mother’s situation, let me make a few comments:

      1. Gas bubbles/foam can only be the work of yeast or lactic acid bacteria since acetic acid bacteria only absorb gas, not release it. Is it home made wine that didn’t complete fermentation? Otherwise there is a slight possibility of lactic acid bacteria fermenting sugars and releasing CO2. Neither are harmful so I wouldn’t worry too much.

      2. If the mother remained at the bottom, it never contributed to fermentation though some bacteria strains can carry on fermentation at the surface without a mother. The opaque white spots are probably not mold unless they are fuzzy though it is not impossible. It could be colonies of another strain of bacteria that formed while the mother was on the surface.

      You probably can’t recover the vinegar with that mother. If the bacteria didn’t re-form a mother they are defunct or they aren’t working with that white wine vinegar. It would be best to try another MoV. Just FYI, white wine typically is low in nutrients so adding a little bit of yeast or yeast extract may help jumpstart the new MoV when added. I hope this helps.

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