Back in November, at the height of apple season, I decided to try making vinegar as a way to use up all the apple cores and peels that were left over from making dried apples. I thought I’d wait to see how the vinegar turned out before sharing the recipe. It finally appears to be as close to vinegar as it’s going to get, so here’s the story.
The recipe I used was from an old cookbook my mother picked up at a garage sale years and years ago. Unfortunately, I’ve just got some photocopied recipes from it now, so I’m not sure what the title of the original book was. I think it was probably the White House Cookbook, circa the 1890s. We had a copy of that one along with a few others from the same era, and I spent many an hour as a little girl happily reading through recipes for horehound cough drops and walnut catsup, instructions for cleaning lace, and five-course breakfast menus. What a different world - but still one I could somehow imagine myself in. Occasionally, my mother and I would try out a recipe or two. We even found our favorite Christmas cake recipe – a dense mace-scented white cake studded with hazelnuts and raisins - in one of the old books (they really knew how to bake back then).
If you like making things from scratch (or just daydreaming about the days of woodstoves and petticoats) and ever chance upon one of these classic cookbooks, I highly recommend you snap it up. Since they were written before the days of electric and gas appliances, they’re full of great tips for modern-day homesteaders living a simple life off the grid. In case you can’t find a hard copy, have a look at Feeding America: The Historic Cookbook Project, a fantastic online archive of books from the Michigan State University library. The White House Cookbook is fully viewable, along with 75 other interesting old treasures. Alternately, for those who don't like reading online, try the centennial edition of the White House Cookbook, which was published in 1996. According to Amazon.com, it contains “[o]riginal 1890s recipes complete with updated low-fat, quick versions.” (That doesn’t sound like much of an improvement to me, but then again I’m still using a copy of the Joy of Cooking from 1974).
But back to the vinegar. Here’s the recipe, exactly as it appears in the old cookbook:
Apple Vinegar (economical and good)
Have an earthen jar ready for use. Into this put your apple peelings and cores if good. Cover generously with water. Cover the jar tight, and let stand in cool place. Every day parings may be added, putting on more water each time. When cold tea is left, pour into this jar and also add molasses to the proportion of a cup to a gallon of water. In the course of two or three weeks you will have an excellent vinegar made of nothing. When ready to use, strain through cheese cloth and stand away. This has been tried with good results, and with a little thought economical housekeepers can make enough in one summer to last all winter.
I didn’t have a spare earthen jar, so I used a large glass jar. I also skipped the cold tea. Perhaps because it was already winter when I started, the fermentation process went much slower than indicated in the recipe, taking about two months to move from sweet to alcoholic to sour. The final result was a cloudy brown liquid that tastes fine but isn’t nearly as sour as vinegar sold in stores. I’m going to have to do some experiments to figure out how to cook with it.
If you try this recipe out, keep in mind is that pieces of apple that are exposed to air will be more likely to mold than those which are submerged. My first batch was fine but my second definitely was not, quickly developing a slimy top layer covered with tiny black hairs. If I make the vinegar again, I’ll probably put a plate with a weight on top to keep everything submerged. Also, apple flesh disintegrates more easily than peels do, so don’t be tempted to throw in whole chunks of fruit! Another perplexing point is that the recipe does not specify a ratio of apple to water. Perhaps if I’d used more apples, the vinegar wouldn’t have turned out so mild. Finally, watch out for non-organic apples. Since sprays accumulate on the skins, and this recipe uses mostly skins, your homemade vinegar could turn into a pesticide bath!
And one final note on the subject of homemade vinegar. A friend of mine made a nice persimmon vinegar simply by peeling very ripe Hachiyas and letting them ferment in a bowl (Hachiyas are the heart-shaped persimmons that get very soft, as opposed to the squatter, crunchy type). She said they essentially turned to liquid on their own. Last week she mixed the persimmon vinegar with homemade soy sauce and served it alongside a vegetable and fish hotpot cooked over a charcoal brazier. A perfect winter feast!