White distilled vinegar, the workhorse of home canners/picklers and DIY cleaners around the world. Not known for its culinary subtlety it is still the largest vinegar produced and sold by far, with the majority of sales actually being bulk shipments to other food manufacturers such as those making ketchup, mustard, pickles, sauces, etc.
Most home vinegar makers don’t endeavor to make white vinegar at home because it is very cheap in the supermarket and also is not looked at as a gourmet vinegar worth the time. Fair enough, I don’t expect this to change one bit. Some people have asked, however, how to make white distilled vinegar at home. The good news is the process is relatively easy and scalable. The bad news is you are unlikely to save much money given the super low margins on white distilled vinegar in supermarkets and the relatively high cost of retail store distilled alcohol. But if you really want to make your own for health, interest, or even emergency preparedness type reasons, this article is for you.
For those not familiar with the basic driving factors of vinegar making, start with these posts of part I and part II of the vinegar making process. Also read my blog post on the ingredients of white distilled vinegar. However, the “slow process” of letting vinegar sit and form a mother is ineffectual for white distilled vinegar making. In fact, you will likely get a moldy mess rather than success; trust me on this, I have tried. So we are going to use the semi-quick (Boerhaave) process I described a couple years ago in this blog. This is actually a good thing since it accelerates vinegar production to as soon as 10 days.
Step: 1 Ingredients
The main ingredients are any kind of distilled alcohol, raw vinegar, and a nutrient source since distilled alcohol has too few nutrients for fermentation. Accessories will include two containers filled with oak chips or grape stems to act as fermentation vessels. Use grape stems (or if you can find them, beechwood shavings) if you don’t want amber coloration and oakey flavor in the vinegar. Also oak chips can get expensive if you scale up. Corn cobs can also be used and historically were used, but I haven’t done so and can’t vouch for them.
For distilled alcohol, you want the cheapest alcohol possible per proof liter to make your vinegar as cheap as possible. Usually the cheapest is the bargain brand gin or vodka that is less than $10 for a 1.5L or 1.75L jug.
Raw vinegar can be any raw vinegar including our mothers of vinegar or another source of raw (unpasteurized) vinegar. Please note for the semi-quick process no solid mother is necessary, only raw vinegar.
Nutrients are necessary to give the vinegar bacteria something besides ethanol to work with in fermentation. Fortunately you do not need much. The best recipes for 1 gallon of vinegar are:
1 gram yeast extract or dry malt extract
1 gram yeast nutrient (diammonium phosphate)
dash (small amount) of epsom salt
30 mL (2 tablespoons) of beer, any kind, ABV does not matter
The epsom salt isn’t strictly necessary but this is a scaled down version of professional nutrient recipes. If you don’t have a precise metric scale, 1/8 tsp of both the yeast/malt extract and yeast nutrient should be fine. Malt extract and yeast nutrient are available at home brew shops or on Amazon. A common brand of yeast extract is Marmite, also on Amazon. I list yeast extract as a gluten free alternative to the dry malt extract or beer but the gluten level should still be very low. The best dry malt extract types are like the pilsen light which has a light color and won’t darken the vinegar much.
Beer is just as good and easier though you may get solid mother on your packing over time. Any kind, literally ANY, will work. If gluten is an issue use sorghum beer.
Step 2: Methodology
First note that you need 2x as many containers for the volume you want to produce with the semi-quick method. So if you want to make gallon of vinegar you should have two, preferably open top, 1 gallon jars or pails.
For cleanliness sake, first sanitize the packing with dilute unscented bleach (1 Tbsp to 1 gallon of water) or use Star San or boiling water. If using chemicals rinse the packing thoroughly to remove any residue after sterilizing.
Fill both pails with the packing (oak, stems, beech, etc.). See an example below with two small 8 oz jars.
Pour in enough raw vinegar in one pail to fill 1/4th of one of the pails. Continue filling the same pail with water until the dilute raw vinegar covers the packing. Let it sit for an hour and then pour the dilute raw vinegar in the other pail and allow it to sit for an hour. This colonizes the packing with vinegar bacteria. You can store the dilute raw vinegar in another container until the process works the first time and then dump it. You should only need it once.
Dilute the cheap distilled alcohol with the correct amount of tap water down to about 6-7% ABV. For 80 proof vodka or gin this would be roughly 5 parts water, 1 part vodka/gin. Mix in the correct amount of nutrients stated above per the volume of dilute alcohol.
Pour this into one of the pails, filling it if possible. It doesn’t have to be completely full so don’t sweat it if you are short. Let it sit for 30 minutes and then pour it into the other pail.
From here on out, it is simple. At least once a day, or better every morning and evening, pour all the liquid from one pail intto the other. One pail should be empty at all times. The full pail can be covered with a lid, the empty pail should have a cloth tightly fitted over it to allow air in for fermentation but keep pests like fruit flies out. Repeat this and after a week the vinegar smell should start and you can be done in 2-3 weeks. Some can get it finished in as quick as 10 days.
Like all vinegar fermentation, warmer temperatures up to 85 F are better. Higher and lower temperatures result in slower fermentations.
After the vinegar seems done–and it is best to measure acidity to make sure you are at least 4% or better 5% using titration–you can pour the vinegar in a jug and use it. If you don’t have titration equipment, a pH below 2.5 is usually a good indicator for white vinegar but pH is unreliable to exactly determine acidity. You must determine if you have at least 5% acidity for use in canning.
You can use the packing indefinitely, just don’t let it dry out and seal it airtight with each pail at least 1/4 full of vinegar if you won’t use it for a while.
This same process can be used to make any type of vinegar with the exception that only with distilled white vinegar are the nutrients necessary. Wine, cider, ale (malt vinegar), all have enough nutrients on their own.