Discover the ancient story of vinegar, plus learn how to infuse your own herbal vinegars at home.
The origin of vinegar is one of those fortunate happenstances never specifically noted in any historical record. Among the oldest foods and medicines known to humans, its discovery most likely occurred about 10,000 years ago, concurrent with the advent of wine, as vinegar is the natural next step after alcoholic fermentation. California winemaker August Sebastiani has been quoted as saying, “God is trying to make vinegar. It is the winemaker’s job to stay his hand.” In the centuries before wine production was perfected, much of the wine inevitably became vinegar. In fact, the French wine port of Orléans became known for its vinegar in the 14th century because of the frequency of this occurrence.
Along the course of history a variety of applications evolved for this remarkable liquid, and vinegar found use as a means of enhancing the flavor of foods; as a preservative; and as a curative and cosmetic. Before the advent of modern technology, vinegar (in addition to salt brine) was an important way of preserving food. The acidic nature of vinegar slows down the growth of harmful bacteria in foods.
The ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have kept quantities of vinegar in their cellars, particularly prizing Egyptian vinegar. They used vinegar for cooking—steeping vegetables and marinating meat to tenderize and add flavor; making pickles; and preserving herbs, flowers and vegetables.
Bowls filled with vinegar were placed on dining tables for dipping bread during meals, a use mentioned in the Old Testament in the Book of Ruth, where it is noted that the reapers soaked their bread in vinegar to freshen it. Vinegar is mentioned in the Bible almost as many times as wine.
By the 13th century, a wide selection of vinegars—including flavored vinegars with clove, chicory, fennel, ginger, truffle, raspberry, mustard and garlic—was commonly sold by street vendors in Paris. Today vinegar is an indispensible kitchen staple, whether used with olive oil as a dip for crusty bread or combined with herbs and oil to dress a salad.
Did you know? The name vinegar is most often described as being derived from the French word for “sour wine,” vinaigre. But if we trace the word aigre back to its Old French origins, its meaning was “eager,” “sharp” or “biting,” while the Latin acer also meant “sharp.” This indicates that vinegar’s name may possibly have originally been “sharp wine” rather than “sour.”
Vinegar has served through the ages as a medicine for both external and internal ailments and as a disinfectant and cleanser. Ancient Persian physicians suggested a mixture of lime juice, verjuice (the sour juice of certain fruits) and vinegar to prevent fat accumulation in the body. Early Greek, Roman and Asian physicians attributed many salutary qualities to vinegar, including aiding digestion, preventing scurvy and lowering bile levels. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, prescribed vinegar to his patients. For “feminine disorders,” he recommended a mixture of vinegar, honey and pepper.
Medieval stillrooms yielded vinegars for “unease” of both stomach and brain, with lavender and rosemary vinegars being two of the favored herbal decoctions. During the plagues in the Middle Ages, robbers in Marseilles are said to have protected themselves from infection with the use of a mixture known as Four Thieves Vinegar. To ward off the noxious odors of raw sewage and garbage, genteel people of the 17th and 18th centuries held vinegar-soaked sponges to their noses. These sponges were carried in small silver boxes called vinaigrettes or in special compartments in the heads of walking canes. In the American Civil War, vinegar was administered to counter scurvy. Even as recently as World War I, vinegar was an accepted treatment for wounds. Modern laboratory analysis verifies the antibacterial and antiseptic properties of vinegar.
Making your own herb-flavored vinegars may not change your life, but it can certainly transform your culinary habits, as they can be used in virtually every aspect of cooking—and they are incredibly easy and inexpensive to make. With a variety of vinegars and combinations of herbs, spices and fruits, the possible variations are practically limitless. Using a delicate rice wine vinegar with a subtle herb like chervil gives a dish a gentle hint of summer’s glory. Combining a robust red wine vinegar with garlic, rosemary and marjoram will add extra gusto to a hearty bean soup.
Herbs to consider for flavored vinegars include basil (any variety), bay, borage, burnet, chervil, chives, dill, fennel (regular and bronze), garlic, garlic chives, lavender, lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rose geranium, rosemary, sage, savory, shallot, spearmint, sweet cicely, tarragon and thyme (especially French, English and lemon).
The biggest mistake people make when creating herbal vinegars is not using enough herbs. Several sprigs may give a whiff of the herb, but to really get an effect, use about 1 cup of loosely packed fresh herb leaves to 2 cups of vinegar. For dried herbs, use 1/2 cup for 2 cups of vinegar.
Gather fresh herbs by mid-morning after the dew has dried. Check for and remove insects. If the plants are muddy, gently wash and dry them with towels. Carefully strip the leaves from the stems. Place the herbs in a clean, sterilized jar and use a spoon to bruise them slightly. Pour the vinegar over the herbs and cover the jar tightly. Do not heat the vinegar. Let the herb-vinegar mixture steep in a dark place at room temperature. Shake the jar every couple of days and taste the vinegar after a week. If the flavor is not strong enough, let it stand for another one to three weeks, checking the flavor weekly. If an even stronger flavor is desired, repeat the steeping process with fresh herbs. When the flavor is right, strain the vinegar, fill the clean, sterilized bottles, cap them tightly and label them.
Commercial mint vinegars are often sweetened. It’s not to my taste, but you can add sugar to a mint vinegar recipe.
So what exactly is this wonderful, diverse liquid with such a long history and so many uses? Most simply, vinegar is a sour- or sharp-tasting liquid containing acetic acid. It is produced from the fermentation of the juice of various fruits or berries, or from honey, molasses or even from cereal grains as in malt vinegars. Each of these substances imparts its own unique flavor, color and odor to the final product.
The process of making vinegar begins when fermentation changes the sugars in the material into alcohol and carbonic gas. The gas then evaporates, leaving only the alcohol and the flavors, or esters. In the final phase, oxidation occurs, in which oxygen in the air combines with the alcohol. This is why vinegar forms only when a bottle of wine is uncorked and exposed to air. When alcohol and oxygen combine with the help of a specialized group of microscopic organisms, known as acetobacters, the result is vinegar. The microscopic organisms, mainly various bacteria, form a gelatinous mass known as mother of vinegar.
The old-fashioned way to make vinegar is a slow, natural process. It can take up to several years, depending on the temperature and air circulation. Crocks or glass bottles are used, or even wooden casks as are used in making fine wine or whiskey. The alcohol comes into contact gradually with air. As it does, it changes into acetic acid, or vinegar, which is heavier than alcohol and slowly sinks to the bottom of the container. Over time, all the alcohol rises to the top and is converted into vinegar.
Modern technology has, of course, speeded up this process. The fermented liquid circulates through large vats, incorporating lots of air and efficiently producing a homogeneous product. These quickly processed vinegars effectively serve as a base to make wonderfully flavored vinegars at home. They are filtered and pasteurized, leaving them sparkling clear. High-quality aged wine, cider or malt vinegars are often left unfiltered and unpasteurized, in which cases the bacteria, or mother, will form at the top and sometimes sink to the bottom. This can be used to make your own vinegars, much as sourdough starter is used.
Although the possibilities with herb-flavored vinegars are nearly endless, these time-tested combinations yield reliably delicious results. To infuse vinegars with these herbal flavors, add 1 cup total of these herbs combined per 2 cups of vinegar. From that basic rule of thumb, you can experiment to get the strength of flavor you desire.
Apple Cider Vinegar: Horseradish, shallot and hot red pepper
Champagne Vinegar: Lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, lemongrass and lemon zest
Malt Vinegar: Tarragon, garlic chives, whole cloves, and garlic or shallot
Red Wine Vinegar: Lemon thyme, rosemary and black peppercorns
Sherry Vinegar: Parsley, thyme, rosemary and bay
White Wine Vinegar: Mint, lemon balm and lemon basil
This article is excerpted from Herbal Vinegar © (Storey, 1994) by Maggie Oster, and used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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