Wildcrafted Lilac Vinegar

By capturing wild yeasts from blossoms and plants, you can harness the power of microbes to create this flavorful condiment in your home kitchen.


Lilac_Vinegar
Photo by Carmen Troesser
 
To make vinegar, you can simply pour fresh juice into a wide-mouthed vessel, top it with a cloth, and let time and microbes happen. In my experience, though, this works perfectly about as often as it doesn’t work at all, most often because of harmless but undesirable surface yeasts or other unwelcome microbes. The microbes compete for the sugar and nutrients, and cause the process to stall or not begin.

That’s why I add a vinegar starter to my recipes. Starter helps give the vinegar a good send-off — first by acidifying the liquid, which helps control surface yeasts, and then by seeding it with a good population that goes to work quickly.

The world’s best vinegars start out with good ingredients, fermented into respectable wine, sake, cider, or other alcohol. You can start with ready-made alcohol; however, to create the tastiest vinegars possible, you’ll need to become a maker of alcohol — and alcohol starts with yeast.

Yeast is the single-celled fungus that’s found readily on the blossoms and fruit of plants. To capture wild yeasts instead of commercial strains for your homemade vinegar, simply leave fresh, unpasteurized juice in an open vessel and let the yeasts that populate it, along with any that drop in, do the work.

If you’d like to work with wild yeasts but have no access to raw juice, you can begin your vinegar project by making a wild yeast starter. A starter is a mini-fermentation that will give you a preview of how well your wild yeasts will work on your batch of vinegar. Make sure it’s a good starter; if it’s quite active, you’ll know the yeasts are viable. You’ll also have a chance to taste it. If it’s boozy, that’s a good sign. If it’s sour and lactic, that means you caught lactic acid bacteria, which turns those sugars into lactic acid (not vinegar acid) rather than alcohol, and you won’t want to use it. Making a starter will also give you a chance to “test” the yeasts you’ve captured; they may be active and delicious, or they may be faulty.



lavender
Photo by Carmen Troesser
 
I often make wild yeast starters with blossoms. Flowers are full of nectar, which has sugar, and where there’s sugar, there’s yeast — up to 400 million cells of yeast in less than ⅛ teaspoon of nectar. The nectar in flower blossoms attracts pollinators, such as bumblebees, and the number of bee visits are believed to be a strong factor in the variety and concentration of yeasts found in and on fruit.

The beautiful thing about yeast harvesting is that you need very little plant material to get things going. One small cluster of milkweed flowers, for example, will give you enough yeast and essence for a couple of quarts of vinegar. But don’t harvest blossoms from areas that have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. And remember, not every flower or plant is edible. Be sure to identify the plant and flower, and use only the edible parts. Use flowers sparingly, especially at first, as some may cause digestive upset in some people.


Wild Yeast Starter Recipe

In The Big Book of Cidermaking, my husband, Christopher, and I give in-depth information on foraging for wild yeast. I use a lot of botanical and blossom yeasts to ferment regular grocery store apple juice into cider and then vinegar. This is taking DIY herbal vinegars to another level. Two floral vinegars we enjoy are made with lilacs and dandelion blossoms.



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