All you need is red wine, water, patience and a good mother.
As I write this, I have six earthenware crocks of red wine vinegar in various stages of evolution tucked away in the dark corners of my kitchen. "Why go to all that trouble?" my friends ask. "Aren't there plenty of good red wine vinegars on the market?" The answer is no. If there are any as good as the kind you can make yourself, I've yet to find them.
I'm not talking about real balsamic vinegar, or top-shelf sherry or Banyuls vinegars; great bottles of these are readily available. But when it comes to simple red wine vinegar, commercial manufacturers make it much too quickly and on the cheap.
So why is homemade vinegar so special? Its taste. It's crisper, more subtle and better balanced than the acidic one-note versions you can buy, with a sparkling quality that enhances food. Used in a sauce or simply for deglazing a sauté pan, it coaxes out layers of flavor. Furthermore, homemade red wine vinegar creates superior salad dressings: I often marinate finely chopped shallots in it for 15 minutes, then add extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper for a superb vinaigrette.
Making vinegar is surprisingly easy. The most important component is patience, because good vinegar takes about two and a half months to develop. To begin, you'll need an earthenware crock with a high-quality plastic or wood spigot, red wine, water and a live starter, often referred to as a mother. The chemical reaction that takes place between the mother and the wine produces vinegar.
A vinegar mother is a fascinating thing to behold. It can be a smooth, gelatinous disk or a leathery veil that ends up sitting atop the liquid inside the crock undisturbed while it does its work. Eventually, the mother layer becomes quite heavy and sinks to the bottom, and another layer takes its place on top. After many batches, the bottom layers stack up, creating an expired blob of useless mothers that needs to be removed.
Basically, there are two ways to go about finding a good mother: get one from a friend who makes vinegar or purchase one from an outfit that sells wine- and beer-making supplies. I got my first mother from Abra Bennett, a professional cook and food writer from Bainbridge Island in Washington State whom I met on my favorite food Web site, eGullet. She sent me a mother with a 40-year pedigree. It came in a jar, a dark-red blob suspended in liquid. Abra also gave me lots of good advice. Her most important pointer was to use the same fruity red wine for my vinegar that I like to drink.
I also bought a mother from my vinegar guru, Mark Larrow, the owner of Beer and Winemaking Supplies in Northampton, Massachusetts (beer-winemaking.com). I was surprised by its look—clear vermillion-colored liquid in a jar. No blob in sight. I followed the instructions on the jar and the mother came to life, just like Abra's.
As you can see from the method detailed at right, once you get yourself set up with a crock and a mother, there is nothing complicated about making vinegar. You'll be amply rewarded for your patience, whether you bottle the vinegar to give as gifts, use it simply in vinaigrettes or use it in more ambitious dishes, like my take on the earthy, luscious French classic poulet au vinaigre that follows.