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Apple cider vinegar deserves to be a staple in every home. It is a life-enhancing elixir, full of nutrients and enzymes, which act as a restorer of well-being. It has a host of uses and will fast become indispensable. Diluted with water, it’s an invigorating tonic that will also be a balm for the digestive system. (Try cider vinegar diluted with sparkling water and you have the perfect soft drink replacement.) Added neat to meat stocks it brings out the nutrients in the bones; it can be used as a marinade and works well as a flavor spike in a vinaigrette. Its benefits are far more than culinary: you can soothe a sore throat with a gargle of warm diluted apple cider vinegar, drive off warts, defeat dandruff, and use a solution as an all-purpose totally natural household cleaner.
Apples are one of nature’s most symbolic and generous of fruits; they are easy to grow, store pretty well, and have been bred and nurtured by people into thousands of flavorful varieties. They’re rich in nutrients, refreshing, often beautifully marked and shaped, and are of course super-convenient to snack on. This is natural fast food at its best.
Commercially produced raw organic apple cider vinegar is made by pressing apples to first make apple juice and then allowing this juice to ferment into hard cider. This is an anaerobic alcoholic fermentation, in which yeasts convert sugar to ethanol in a controlled environment. To progress to cider vinegar, there’s a secondary fermentation, this time aerobic, when acetic acid bacteria take over, converting the alcohol to acid. (You can certainly try this method at home—here’s how to use store-bought yeast to make your own vinegar.)
The commercial process uses apple juice only and it’s certainly the best way to make strong, full-flavored apple cider vinegar. But there’s a quick method to make your own using whole apples, which is also the perfect way to sample the simple charms of wild fermentation.
Making this vinegar, as with all wild fermentation, is not an exact science. Every batch is an experiment in its own right, especially when made from different varieties of apples, and will ferment in its own special way and make unique-tasting apple cider vinegar. Try different combinations of sweet and sour apples to vary the overall taste profile.
Stage 1: Make very rough hard cider—the primary fermentation
Photograph courtesy of Kyle Books
Wash the apples and coarsely chop into pieces no smaller than 1 inch. Include the skin, cores, stems, and seeds. Let the chopped pieces sit on your cutting board for about an hour or so; they will get brown in contact with the air, and this oxidization is what you want as it will speed up the fermentation.
Throw the pieces into a clean 5-quart jar—they should fill the jar by about one-third to a half. If they do not, add more chopped apple. Add enough filtered water to cover the chopped apples completely—the container should be more or less full, say to about 2 inches from the top. Stir in the raw honey or cane sugar until fully dissolved.
(Side note: You can, if you like, do the “Scraps method”—eating your apples while making quick apple cider vinegar.Follow the overall method above, but rather than chopping up your apples, peel them very coarsely with a knife. Keep the flesh for making an apple pie (here’s a classic apple pie recipe) or some apple compote, and let the skins, cores, seeds, and stalks sit out to brown. Use these scraps to make your cider and your vinegar. Use about half the recommended honey or unrefined cane juice sugar.)
Ideally, you want to keep all the apples immersed as they ferment. Use a suitable object, such as an upturned beaker or a smaller jar, to press down and submerge the apples.
Cover the top of the jar with your cloth and secure with a large rubber band. Place the jar in a warm and dark place, such as a warm kitchen cupboard above the refrigerator. Let the mix ferment for about 1 week, stirring gently once or twice a day. It will start to fizz and bubble, and smell like a microbrewery, as the sugar ferments into alcohol. It will also start to cloud and thicken, making a viscous liquid. You’ve now made a very coarse if somewhat weak hard cider, known as scrumpy in the West Country of England. Agricultural workers there, and where there used to be an abundance of apple orchards, were once paid—in part—with flagons of scrumpy. It’s very nutritious and lightly alcoholic.
After about another 7 to 9 days, often when the apple pieces no longer float but sink to the bottom of the jar, the apple cider is ready to be converted to vinegar. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave the jar to ferment for much longer, say 6 weeks, and as every batch is different, it’s good to experiment. You will end up with different flavors and strengths of apple cider vinegar.
Stage 2: From apple cider to apple cider vinegar— the secondary fermentation
The apples have done their work, so strain off the pieces by pouring the cider through a sieve into the 4 x 1-quart glass jars. If you like, you can mash up the apple pieces and press their juices out, and add this to the jars. Cover each jar with a fresh piece of cloth and secure with a rubber band.
Leave alone in a warm, dark environment for another 3 to 4 weeks to allow the acetic acid bacteria to transform the alcohol into acetic acid. During this secondary fermentation the odor will shift from a sharp alcohol to tart vinegar, and some sediment will form at the base as well as, thrillingly, a culture known as the mother. You see the mother as threads in the liquid and perhaps as a disk on the surface of each jar. The mother of vinegar is a living thing, perfectly harmless to consume and formed of apple residues, enzymes, and acetic acid bacteria.
From 3 weeks onward, gently push aside the mother to taste your apple cider vinegar to see if it is ready. Once it has the right level of sourness for you, remove the mother, if one has fully formed, keeping her immersed in a jar of apple cider ready for the next batch. Most commercially produced apple cider vinegars have a declared acidity (pH) of 4.5 to 5, where in pH terms, 7 is neutral and 0 is most acidic.
Pour off the vinegar, leaving behind the residue, which you can compost. Store in clean glass jars with secure lids or snap-top bottles.
Because the vinegar is raw and alive, another mini mother often develops in each bottle as fermentation continues. In the airtight environment this will soon cease and the vinegar will become stable and very long lasting. However, if you leave the fermenting vinegar exposed to the air for a very long time, the acetic acid bacteria will transform the acetic acid to water and carbon dioxide, making the vinegar increasingly weaker. The answer? Taste your fermenting vinegar once or twice a week, and bottle and seal it as soon as you like its level of acidity.
Tip: To speed up the transformation from cider to vinegar, add some of your mother from a previously made batch or from commercially made raw apple cider vinegar, with the mother, to your secondary fermentation.
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