I started making vinegars last year, both intentionally and accidentally. We had ordered a 10kg box of apples from the Tons valley shop in Uttarakhand as a way to support farmers through the pandemic and lockdowns. Apple cider vinegar seemed like the best thing to make using the slightly bruised apples, peels and cores.
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The accidental vinegar was from a jar of tepache, a Mexican fermented drink, that I set to ferment (pineapple peels, cores, raw sugar, cinnamon, cloves, water). It sat forgotten for days. The resultant tepache was too sour to be had as is, so I let the acetic acid bacteria continue to do its magic and turn it into pineapple vinegar. This vinegar has the notes of the added spices, making it all the more complex in flavour.
Vinegar is one of the oldest souring agents. Left to itself, all fruit will ferment and turn sour naturally. The Babylonians used to make vinegar flavoured with herbs and spices from date wine. They would use it to pickle vegetables and meat, significantly increasing food shelf life as most microbes cannot grow in strongly acidic conditions. They would also add vinegar to water to make it safe, for the same reasons.
There are two kinds of vinegar. The synthetic or non-brewed form, also called distilled white vinegar, is made from a grain-alcohol mixture. It has the highest percentage of acetic acid among all vinegars. Brewed vinegar is prepared by fermenting fruit, sugar cane, coconut water or grains.
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Wine was prepared by fermenting fruits as early as 8000 BC. Vinegar was a by-product when these alcoholic beverages were left exposed to air. The word vinegar comes from vin aigre (French), which means sour wine. In the first step of fermentation, alcohol is produced when the naturally occurring yeasts consume sugars in the fruit. In step 2, the acetic acid bacteria convert the alcohol to acetic acid to get vinegar. Vinegars have 4-18% acetic acid.
All societies that produce wine or any alcoholic drink have a vinegar tradition because acetic acid bacteria turn all fermented alcoholic drinks to vinegar. Different regions have their own variety: coconut vinegar in Goa, red wine or white wine vinegar in France, balsamic vinegar in Italy, rice wine vinegar in Asian cooking, and so on.
Vinegar is not commonly used in the subcontinent because both upper-caste Hindu and Muslim societies frown upon alcohol production and consumption, and you can’t make vinegar without first making alcohol. But it could also be because of the array of souring agents available to Indian cooking.
Goa is an exception. The Anglo-Indian community uses vinegar regularly, vindaloo being a famous example. Kachampuli in Coorg, which is called a vinegar, is technically a boiled down extract of the fruit Garcinia gummi gutta—the end result somewhat treacly, like pomegranate molasses.
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Sour flavour is a mandatory component of salad dressings; you can get it by using lime juice, a vinegar or any other acidic agent. The accepted ratio is 1 part acid to 3-4 parts oil; olive oil for example. Stock up on two kinds of vinegar to create different flavour combinations of dressings. Changing the acidic ingredient, the carrier oil and flavour-boosting ingredients (for e.g. garlic, citrus zest, ginger, mustard) will give you a new salad dressing each time.
Vinegars will stay for years in your kitchen cabinet, although a year is ideal; the potency starts diminishing thereafter. You can also make your own seasonal fruit vinegar, taking care of all the fruit waste and imperfect produce. Follow the mango vinegar recipe here.
Makes around 700ml
Peels and stone of 4-5 mangoes*
One-third cup raw sugar (khandsari)
Quarter cup raw vinegar* (starter)
Wide-mouthed glass jar
Muslin cloth or cheese cloth square
In a clean dry glass jar, add the peels and stones of the mangoes, sugar, water and raw vinegar. Stir well until sugar dissolves. Cover with two layers of muslin cloth or cheesecloth and secure with a string or rubber band. This keeps the mixture aerated, while keeping insects out. Oxygen is required for this phase of fermentation. Give this a stir once a day for one week and secure the cloth again. Stir it once every two-three days during week 2. After two weeks, filter out the solids and pour the liquid back into a jar and close with a plastic lid.
Keep on a kitchen shelf for four-five weeks to turn into mango vinegar. You may find a thin membrane-like layer forming and floating on the top. This is called the mother—a cloud of bacteria, yeast, protein and enzymes. You can use this along with some of the vinegar to make another batch.
*Some flesh sticking to the stone and peels is fine
*Use home-made raw vinegar or a store-bought natural vinegar which specifies “with mother”
HONEY MUSTARD DRESSING
Makes around 8 servings
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp whole-grain mustard
1-2 tbsp honey
Half tsp salt
Half tsp freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a spice grinder or a small jar of a mixer and blend for 10-20 seconds until thick and creamy. Use immediately or refrigerate in a glass jar. Such dressings will separate out as they are temporary emulsions. Give them a good shake and they are good to use. A tablespoon of dressing is good for one portion of salad.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, released recently.