The other day I discovered a jar labelled "Special Red Wine Vinegar 2010" in the very back of my kitchen cupboard. Knowing that vinegar never goes off (in the balsamic houses of Modena, in Italy, a cask of balsamic vinegar is sometimes put down when a child is born and not gifted until they reach the age of 21, by which time it is worth a small fortune), I opened the jar and tried it. The flavour was rounded, full-bodied and almost sweet.
Floating around in the bottom of the jar was something that looked like a chunk of raw liver. Actually, this unattractive mass was the vinegar "mother", a form of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria (mycoderma aceti) that develops on fermenting alcoholic liquids and, with the aid of oxygen in the air, turns alcohol into acetic acid. Though slightly different in its composition (and because this was a red wine vinegar not a white wine one), it looked a bit like the scoby used to make kombucha.
You may have sometimes noticed a cloudy, jelly-like substance floating in the bottom of a bottle of vinegar, especially in bottles of cider vinegar. This is an early stage of the mother, which, if left long enough, will form the gloop that I found in my well-aged bottle of homemade red wine vinegar.
Wine vinegars start with white or red wine, while malt vinegar takes its cue from beer hops, apples are used to make cider vinegar and grain is the basis of white vinegar. Each vinegar offers a different flavour profile and level of acidity and its useful having a range to draw on in your pantry.
Making your own wine vinegar is actually incredibly simple and a fabulous way to reinvent all those half-empty glasses of wine left over at the end of a dinner party or a wine that has sat around a bit long and is no longer good to drink. You don't need to worry about viruses or bugs — the environment is way too acidic for any of them to survive. Start by transferring the dregs of a bottle of vinegar that has some of the cloudy stuff hanging around the base into a big a jar or vinegar crock (don't use anything metallic). Add leftover wine whenever you have it and cover with a cloth so the air can get in. Once the jar is full, cover with a screw-top lid and leave in a warm cupboard.
After about six months, provided it's left somewhere warm, it will start to taste like vinegar. Keep tasting and when it tastes vinegary enough, strain most of it off into a sterilised jar and start using it. You can then begin the process again by adding more wine to the now more established mother.
Vinegar's wonderful ability to elevate a dish comes to the fore in the following tasty recipes.
Pork and mushroom siu mai
Chinese black vinegar has a deeper flavour (more like balsamic vinegar) and is used in dipping sauces and stir-fries. Thanks to my dear friend Maylene Lai for introducing me to the wonderful dipping sauce I've included in this recipe, which works well with any kind of dumpling.
Ready in 45 mins
1½ cups dried sliced shiitake mushrooms
350g pork mince (or chicken mince)
2 spring onions, very finely chopped
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
1 Tbsp cornflour
1 Tbsp sesame oil
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp fine white pepper
16 round or square wonton wrappers
1 Tbsp black sesame seeds, to garnish
Soy vinegar dipping sauce
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup black Chinese vinegar
A couple of drops of chilli oil or sesame oil
Spring onion/scallion, thinly sliced, to garnish
Sesame seeds, to garnish
Cover mushrooms with boiling water and allow to soak until softened (about 15 minutes). Drain and chop finely. Place in a bowl with chicken, spring onions, oyster sauce, cornflour, sesame oil, sugar, salt and fine white pepper and stir to combine.
Make dipping sauce. Place soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil or sesame oil in a jar or bowl and shake or stir to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl and put to one side.
Place 1-1½ Tbsp of filling in the centre of a dumpling wrapper, ensuring at least a 1½ cm border of wrapper around the edges. Pull up the sides and squeeze around the filling, leaving top open. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling, then sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Steam until cooked through and springy to the touch (10 minutes). Serve hot with dipping sauce. Garnish with spring onion and sesame seeds before serving.
Creamy polenta with balsamic roasted veges
It's amazing how just a splash of vinegar is often all that is needed to bring out flavours.
Ready in 1 hour
4 carrots, scrubbed and cut into quarters lengthways
3 red onions, halved and cut into thin wedges
2 beetroot, peeled, halved and each half cut into 8 wedges
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp soft brown sugar
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup instant polenta
½ cup grated cheese
2 Tbsp butter
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 handfuls rocket, spinach or watercress leaves
2 Tbsp pesto thinned with a little extra virgin olive oil
½ cup roasted nuts, such as almonds or hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 190C fan bake and line a shallow roasting tray with baking paper for easy clean-up. Combine carrots, onions, beetroot, oil, balsamic vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper on tray and toss to coat. Spread out in a single layer and roast until tender (35-40 minutes). Remove from oven and allow to cool a little.
When the vegetables are nearly cooked prepare the polenta. Heat vegetable stock in a medium pot. When it comes to a simmer, add polenta in a steady stream, stirring as you add it. Once it starts to thicken and bubble, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 5 minutes. It should have the thick, creamy consistency of porridge. Stir in cheese and butter and adjust seasonings to taste.
To assemble, spoon polenta into 4 heated serving bowls. Mix roasted vegetables with leaves and divide over the top of polenta. Drizzle with pesto oil and garnish with nuts.
Cowboy lamb chops
Sometimes when you make a casserole or stew, it can taste rich but kind of flat on the palate. Adding a small spoon of vinegar makes it taste so much better. It's the same with mashed potatoes. Add 1 tsp of white wine vinegar into the mash pot along with butter, salt and pepper and savour the difference.
Ready in about 3 hours
6-8 lamb shoulder chops or 8-10 lamb neck chops
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into thin wedges
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
400g can tomatoes in juice
1 cup chicken stock
¼ cup raisins
2 Tbsp soft brown sugar
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp cider vinegar or rice vinegar
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
Flat-leaf parsley leaves, to garnish
Creamy polenta (see above) or mashed potato, to serve
Preheat oven to 150C fan bake. Combine all ingredients except parsley and polenta in a casserole dish. Cover the top with a piece of baking paper, then cover with a lid and cook until very tender (2½-3 hours). Garnish with parsley and serve over polenta or mashed potato.
This recipe also works well in a slow-cooker. Cook on high power for 4-5 hours or low power for 8-10 hours. If desired, thicken sauce before serving with a little cornflour dissolved in cold water.