Tag Archives: Vinegar

Switchel – Old-Timey Drinking Vinegar

And in my thirst they gave me vinegar

-Psalm 69:21


Switchel, old-timey drinking vinegar, make with apple cider vinegar, molasses, and gingerThis post is part of an ongoing fight against the tyranny of the lemon.

In the ancient world drinking vinegar was for the destitute and god-forsaken.  In fact, it was the last thing Christ drank before he gave up the ghost.

So it is interesting that in North America, before we had access to cheap lemons and limes, we made several thirst-quenching drinks with vinegar.  The most famous of these was probably switchel, a mixture of apple cider vinegar, molasses, and ginger, diluted with cold water.  Switchel was often given to farmhands during the hot harvest season.

I know drinking vinegar sounds really weird, but with balancing sweetness and water to dilute, switchel can be subtle and delicious.  A good switchel actually tastes like ginger ale more than anything, and you might not even realize that it contains vinegar if you aren’t forewarned.

If you are skeptical, I encourage you to try the extremely simple recipe below.  I make a switchel concentrate, which can be stored in the pantry and diluted with water as necessary.


Switchel Concentrate


  • 250 g fancy molasses
  • 250 g honey
  • 250 g apple cider vinegar
  • 125 g fresh ginger, chopped fine in a food processor


  1. Combine all the ingredients in a pot over medium-high heat.  As soon as the mixture reaches a vigorous simmer, remove the ginger by passing through a fine mesh strainer.

Yield: ~650 mL switchel concentrate

To serve, combine each part switchel concentrate with about five parts still or sparkling water.  Serve over ice.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

A bottle of Unico Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThis is balsamic vinegar of Modena.[1]  We’ve all had it before: it’s brown, and sweet, and acidic.  This bottle was produced by Unico.  I think I bought it at Safeway.

Let’s look at the ingredients list.  First is wine vinegar.  Then concentrated grape must.  “Must” is the winemaker’s term for unfermented grape juice.  So concentrated grape must is just cooked grape juice.  Next we see caramel, or cooked sugar, which gives the vinegar is characteristic colour, sweetness, and body.  Finally we have sulfites, which inhibit micro-organisms and prevent unwanted fermentation.  In other words, this condiment is sweetened vinegar.

Bottles labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” have a faux seal on them that says “Indicazione Geografica Protettata,” or IGP.  This is an EU certification that guarantees a very basic level of quality, a broad style of production, and certifies that at least one part of that production occured in the indicated region, Modena in this case.  None of the ingredients actually need to come from there: the grapes that created the vinegar and concentrated must could have been from other parts of Italy, or France, or Australia.  The part of the process that takes place in Modena is the brief aging period: all the ingredients are combined and stored in a barrel for one year, then bottled.

Balsamic vinegar of Modena is a commercial product made on an industrial scale.  I like it: I always have a bottle at home and I use it semi-regularly for salad dressing.  Or sometimes I cook it down to a syrupy consistency and drizzle it on toast with honey.  It’s tasty, but it is a pale shadow of the original, traditional vinegar on which it is based.

A bottle of San Donnino Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThe photo at right shows a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.  Instead of an IGP stamp, it has a DOP label: “denominazione di origine protettata”.  DOP regulations are much more stringent than IGP.  Let’s look at the ingredients list of this product.

There is actually only one ingredient that can be used to produce traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena: grape must.

So let’s talk about this grape must.  First, the grapes must all come from around Modena, and they must be of only two varieties: Trebbiano and Lambrusco.  The grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed to make juice.  This juice is then cooked very gently for about twenty four hours, preventing conventional fermentation and concentrating the natural sugars in the fruit.

Once the must is cool it is aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels called a batteria.  There are usually five barrels in a batteria.  They can be made out of any of six kinds of wood: mulberry, ash, cherrywood, chestnut, oak, or juniper.  Each barrel has an opening at the top, covered only with cloth, so that the grape must is exposed to the air.  As you can see in the photo below, the barrels are of different sizes, lined up on a rack so that they descend in volume.

Batterie at San Donnino in Modena

It is in these barrels, without the addition of any yeast, that the grape must slowly (slowly!) ferments, first to an alcoholic mixture, then an acidic one.  Moisture also evaporates through the opening in the barrels, so the must levels gradually drop month by month.

The batterie are always set up in an attic, where ambient temperatures fluctuate with the seasons.  The micro-organisms working on the vinegar are active in the warm summer months, and stagnant in winter.

The final important aspect of a batteria is that it is a fractional blending system.  Each year the producer is allowed to draw only one litre of vinegar from the smallest barrel.  Then must is moved from the next largest barrel into the smallest.  All the barrels are topped up with must from their larger neighbour.  The largest barrel at the end is topped up with the season’s new must.

In other words:

  • all the barrels contain a blend of musts from different years
  • the largest barrel contains the youngest average age
  • the smallest barrel contains the oldest average age
  • the average age of all the must increases with each year

batteria must be at least 12 years old before its vinegar can be sold as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.  Vinegar that is 25 years or older can earn a further classification called extravecchio (“extra old…”).

Before it can be bottled and sold, the one litre that is drawn from the smallest barrel of each batteria is evaluated by a consortium.  It is tasted and scored, and if it is not deemed worthy it is returned to the batteria for another year, or longer.  Once the consortium has approved a batch of vinegar, they give the producer a certain number of bottles and DOP labels.

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is always sold in a particular bottle designed by Giugiaro.  The high speed train that I rode from Rome to Bologna was also designed by Guigiaro.  Every Giugiaro balsamic vinegar bottle holds only 100 mL.  Prices for one of these bottles vary greatly.  I paid 40 Euros for the bottle of San Donnino shown above.

So, that’s how traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is made.  What do you do with it?

Firstly, you never cook it.

Secondly, you don’t make salad dressings with it, or mix it with oil or any other food: you put it directly onto food in small quantities.

The most classical use is as a condiment for cheese and cured meat, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is made just down the road from Modena.  It is also commonly added to mortadella, fish, and pasta.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is rarely served at restaurants because of it’s high cost.  In fact I’ve only seen it in a restaurant twice.  The first was at The French Laundry, where our server shook a few drops of 100 year old balsamic vinegar onto ricotta agnolotti.  The second was at Osteria Franscescana in Modena.  I ate a “croccantino,” which was a piece of foie gras coated in crushed almonds and hazenlnuts, filled with a generous glob of traditional balsamic.  The foie was mounted on the end of a stubby wooden stick, like a popsicle.

It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t told you what traditional balsamic vinegar tastes like.  The reason this product deserves respect isn’t because of how long it takes to make or how expensive it is: it’s the taste.  I learned what I know about traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena from Davide at San Donnino.  He gave us a tour of his acetaia,[2] and climbing into his attic and smelling those first wafts of balsamic was the most memorable moment of my entire stay in Italy.  Yes, it smelled of vinegar, but with a pronounced aroma of dark, cooked sugar, like molasses.  Later, when we tasted the vinegar, we found that it is not sharply acidic and simply sweet like the industrial version, but balanced, rounded, and again with that incredible, deep, blackstrap flavour.

We brought back a bottle of regular traditional, and a bottle of extravecchio.  To taste this vinegar now is an incredible, visceral reminder of Modena.  It has the transportive power usually associated with wine.

Thank you, Davide.


1.  Pronounced “MOH-den-a”, not “mo-DEE-na”
2. Pronounced “a-che-TEYE-a”

Herb Vinegar

Resinous herbs can easily handle lights frosts, so this time of year we still have a good deal of thyme, rosemary, and other robust herbs in the garden.  Thankfully there is an entire repertoire of methods to preserve them before the snow falls.  You can collect them in large bouquets and hang them in your kitchen to dry, for instance.  Or make salted herbs.  Or pack them into a jar and pour vinegar over them.  This past week I racked a couple gallons of cider vinegar from a healthy vinegar crock, so herb vinegar seemed the best way to save our thyme.

The aromatic components of herbs are called essential oils.  They more closely resemble fats, ethanol, and acetic acid than they do water, and they therefore dissolve readily in oil, booze, and vinegar.  Over the coming weeks and months sprigs of thyme will infuse my cider vinegar with their volatile essential oils, and the resulting liquid will then be used in vinaigrettes and marinades.

There are two ways to maximize the extraction of essential oils when making herb vinegar.  One is to lightly bruise the herbs before submerging in vinegar, which damages some of the plant cells and allows the vinegar to better penetrate and dissolve the oils.  Another is to heat the vinegar before you pour it over the herbs.

I elected to lightly bruise the thyme, but not to heat the vinegar.  I’m hoping this will better preserve the flavour of the fresh thyme.

Now we wait.

A jar of thyme vinegar.


There are many compelling reasons to never buy salad dressings from the grocery store:

  • You almost certainly already have the ingredients in your pantry to make a good dressing.
  • A good dressing can be made in less than 90 seconds.  Actually you can make enough dressing for a few weeks in 90 seconds.
  • There are weird things in store-bought dressings, like calcium disodium EDTA and acetylated monoglycerides.  They also usually contain a good deal of sugar or glucose-fructose; not necessarily a bad thing, but a fact of which many people are unaware.

Invest is some quality oil and vinegar, then never buy a Kraft dressing again.

Whisking together a vinaigrette for slaw.

The simplest dressing to make at home is vinaigrette, which is a French diminutive meaning “little vinegar.”  There are two common ratios used by chefs for composing a vinaigrette: 3:1 oil to vinegar, and 2:1 oil to vinegar.  The exact proportions can be tailored to the particular application.  For my money, 3:1 is best for greens, 2:1 for slaw, potato salad, and other preparations using robust ingredients.  Any tart liquid can stand in for vinegar.  Sour fruit juices like raspberry or rhubarb, for instance.

Oil gives the impression of moisture on the tongue.  It is also a conveyance for the vinegar and other flavours you add.  If you plan on using a strongly-flavoured oil, like cold-pressed canola oil, or olive oil, it should probably be cut with a more neutral oil.

If the oil is slowly added to the vinegar while whisking, a temporary emulsion will form.  Some ingredients will stabilize and prolong the emulsion.  Mustard, for instance.

Vinaigrettes are emphatically not just for green salads: they are extremely versatile and go well with steak, fish, sautéed veggies, slaw, and starchy side dishes like macaroni salad.

Below are some simple vinaigrettes that I use at home.


Honey Mustard Dressing
my default slaw dressing

This is a punchy, acidic dressing that I use on coleslaw and potato salad.  It’s a bit thick and tart to be used on delicate greens, though it could certainly be thinned out for that purpose.

Master Ratio – 1:1:4:8, honey, mustard, cider vinegar, canola oil


  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup canola oil (I like to use half conventional canola oil, and half cold-pressed canola oil)
  • optional but recommended: 1 tsp caraway seeds, 1 tsp mustard seeds, and 1/2 tsp celery seed


  1. If using the spices, toast the seeds in a very hot, dry, heavy pan until they are aromatic and starting to crackle, then immediately stir them into the oil.  They should sizzle on contact with the oil.
  2. Whisk the honey, mustard, vinegar, and salt together in a bowl.
  3. Slowly add the oil while whisking.
  4. This dressing can be used immediately, or stored in a jar in the fridge for several weeks.


Pumpkin Seed Oil Dressing

This is an extremely refined dressing for showcasing the flavour of very fine oil.  I learned it in Austria, where they have amazing pumpkin seed oil.  Water is flavoured with cider vinegar and a bit of salt.  The greens are dressed with the water, then shaken to remove most of the liquid.  The salad is plated, then the oil is drizzled over top.  Instead of an oil-vinegar emulsion coating the leaves of the salad you get the refreshing sensation of the water beading on the leaves.

Put differently, a classic French vinaigrette gives you the texture of the oil and the flavour of the vinegar, while this Austrian variation lets you have the flavour of a fine oil with the refreshing mouthfeel of the water and vinegar.

Master Ratio – 3:1:1, water, vinegar, oil


  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tbsp Styrian pumpkinseed oil


  1. Combine the water, vinegar, and salt in a bowl and stir until the salt has dissolved.  Toss the greens in the dressing, gently shaking them as you remove them from the bowl.
  2. Plate the salad, then drizzle the oil over top so that each mouthful will have some of the oil.

I serve this dressing on whatever greens are available, usually with a pinch of minced raw onion and other pungent veggies like radish or kohlrabi.

Cider Vinegar

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.

-Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”


A bottle of honey-coloured homemade cider vinegar.This year, for the first time, I successfully “made” vinegar.  I didn’t write about it earlier because I didn’t feel like I had actually done anything, or learned anything.  Hence the quotation marks.  The truth is that with the numerous little crocks and tubs in which I’ve fermented cider, every so often something really weird happens that I can’t explain.

I tried really hard to make vinegar last year.  I read quite a bit online about the process.  The conversion of alcoholic beverages like wine and cider into vinegar is a fermentation in the broad biochemical sense.  When we make cider, yeast, a fungus, digests the sugar in apple juice, and produces alcohol.  In the case of vinegar, the creature doing the digesting is acetobacter, the food is alcohol, and the byproduct acetic acid.

Something very interesting happens once acetobacter takes hold of a crock of booze.  The bacteria need oxygen, so they weave a little raft of cellulose that floats on the surface of the liquid.  This raft appears as a snotty layer of scum.  In direct contrast to its appearance, it’s been given a rather quaint name: “mother of vinegar.”

Vinegar-makers working with commercial alcohol will generally inoculate the drink with a bit of mother.  However, when working with fresh, unpasteurized cider, the vinegar process will happen of its own accord, though let me tell you that it happens very unpredictably.

Last fall I left a crock of dry cider exposed to the air in the back reaches of my basement, and waited.  Soon a powdery-looking foam developed on the surface.  There was clearly some kind of process taking place.  An exothermic process, to be more precise: if you held your hand a few inches above the foam you could feel heat emanating from the liquid.  I tasted the cider every few weeks.  It changed, but never became sour.  It actually seemed to be losing acidity.  One day in the spring I tasted it, and in a weird inversion of the wedding at Cana, the delicious, alcoholic cider had been transformed to water.  It had no taste, and no acidity.  I almost wept.

The mother from a successful batch of natural cider vinegar

I’ve only been making cider for two years, but I’ve already seen that any number of microbes can get a stranglehold on your fermentation tubs, and they all throw up different types of gross-looking scum.  This year I saw some very bizarre blobs indeed.  Most often they look like white dust floating on the surface, perhaps with delicate veins running throughout, like marble.  One time a peculiar, fine honeycomb structure developed on the surface of the cider.  Sometimes boogers form.  Several times the flotsam looked like beer trub.  Sometimes it’s snow white.  Others it’s puke green, or chestnut brown with hints of amber.  Most often it’s beige.

Sometimes these alien landscapes appeared on dry cider that I intentionally left exposed to the air.  Once they appeared on dry cider that was in a glass jug fitted with an air-lock.  A couple times they showed up part way through the initial alcoholic fermentation.  I should mention that if you’re trying to make cider and scum like this forms, you can usually just rack the cider and leave the sludge behind, and fermentation will continue.  This year I was very curious to see what happened, so I left most of them alone.

By mid fall I had a little closet with five or six one gallon jugs, all covered in some kind of bacterial culture.  Throughout the fall, every couple of weeks I taste all of them, using a syringe to poke through the scum and extract a few drops of liquid.  Some still tasted like cider, a few others like diluted cider.  Two of them hit my tongue and had a startling, sour-apple acidity. I strained off the liquid and bottled it as vinegar.  I also transferred what I can only hope is a mother of vinegar to some dry cider from the cellar.

The vinegar looks, smells, and tastes absolutely nothing like Heinz cider vinegar.  Mine is the colour of creamed honey.  It’s very hazy, though as it sits in the pantry I notice that there is sediment accumulating on the bottom, so perhaps it will clear with time.  It smells and tastes unmistakably of fresh apples, with a very full, well-rounded acidity.

If the tub of dry cider that I inoculated turns out well, I’ll have at least two gallons of vinegar to play with, and it will no doubt end up in all my pickles and dressings.  For now I’m content to consume it by diluting it slightly and pouring it over charcuterie and bread.