Word to your mother

by Trinity Hart, Education Specialist at the Indiana State Museum

Several months ago, a neighbor gave me a red wine vinegar “start.” Before it was given to me, I didn’t realize that, like sour dough, one required a “start” to make vinegar. In vinegar-making, it is known as the “mother.” When it came time to brainstorm activities and demonstrations for the Hoosier Harvest this October, I shared my “mother” with my supervisor, who remembered her “mother” sitting in the back of her fridge.

And so I began to research vinegar and how to make it at home. Although I had my very own vinegar “start” at home, it was through this research that I acquired a burning curiosity which quickly turned into a desire to become an aspiring home vinegar maker.

The mother ... ick!

A “start” or “mother” is the bacterial culture that produces vinegar. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds. The “mother” is a dark red blob. The only real likeness I can compare it to is —watch out, it gets kind of graphic here — that it looks like placenta. How do I know what placenta looks like, you may ask? I grew up on a farm in Oregon with livestock, and I’ve watched many births.

Anyway, back to the “mother” ship … during my research, I learned that my measly attempts to make vinegar were misguided at best. Turning wine into vinegar is relatively easy; I was just misinformed, and never followed through in educating myself.

Vinegar has been used for centuries. Historians are led to believe that it was discovered by accident by different cultures throughout the world. While wine sealed in a bottle without air can remain stable for an indeterminate length of time, wine left exposed to air will inevitably turn to vinegar. Any one who has left an open bottle of wine on the counter overnight knows it has a noticeably different odor and taste. Multiply that short overnight by several weeks and bacteria will form and act as an acetobacter. The acetobacter uses oxygen to convert the alcohol into vinegar. While naturally-occurring bacteria will form in uncovered wine, it may not be the appropriate variety of bacteria, thus the need for a “mother.”

Once you have acquired a “mother,” you merely add red wine, place it in a cupboard or somewhere that maintains room temperature, cover it with a paper towel or cheesecloth, and wait. The process is fairly simple and few things can go wrong. You can’t poison yourself or your family and you will end up with vinegar that is stronger, more robust and more flavorful than anything you have ever tasted before — so I’m told. I’m hoping that now that I am proceeding with the correct process, I may have my own vinegar ready for Crocked, Sauced & Pickled on Oct. 9. During this festival, I will be demonstrating the steps of making your own vinegar and you may even get to try my homemade concoction! As for finding a “mother”? I’ll have some tips for that, too.

For more information about the Hoosier Harvest and other programming, please visit indianamuseum.org.

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