Homemade Cider Vinegar

Tom here today...

Two years ago for Christmas I got Elizabeth a vinegar crock, and we've successfully made a couple of different batches of vinegar using it -- both red wine and white wine vinegar.

We've also attempted to make apple cider vinegar using apple cores and peels, with absolutely no success – the process we used involved submerging the peels and cores in a manner similar to fermenting pickles, and all we wound up with was some moldy liquid.

Then, about a month or two ago, Elizabeth read Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar, by Michael Harlan Turkell, and it gave us insight into what's really going on with the creation of vinegar. Armed with this insight and a little more internet research, I set out to try making apple cider vinegar.

Vinegar is sometimes referred to as a twice-fermented liquid. First, a sugary liquid is fermented with yeast to produce alcohol. Next, the alcohol is consumed by acetobacter (acetic acid-forming bacteria) to form vinegar. This was the fatal flaw in our earlier apple cider vinegar attempt – you've got to start with an alcoholic beverage.

Fortunately, I have some experience fermenting sugary liquids into alcohol. I got a gallon of unpasteurized, no-additive apple cider from the store, added some yeast, popped on an airlock, and started it fermenting. I used some dry wine making yeast from the homebrew store, and did a little bit of measurement using a hydrometer, which measures the specific gravity, or sugar content of the cider. Measuring the change in the specific gravity tells you how much sugar has been converted to alcohol.



After about a week the yeast had done the trick – the gravity had fallen from about 1.052 to just over 1.0, so the alcohol percentage was right around 6.8% abv, perfect for making vinegar. Now it was time to introduce the acetobacter and think about the next process. I put some of the cider into the vinegar crock, along with some unpasteurized cider vinegar, and that's happily sitting on top of the fridge – in about 3-6 months we'll give that a try and see how it goes.

I was also inspired by this vinegar-making series by Nordic Food Lab, in which they explored the science of making vinegars. They noted that the acetobacter fermentation is different than lactic acid fermentation (the one for pickles and sauerkraut). Lactic acid fermentation is an anaerobic process, where you want to keep oxygen out – this is why you use a weight and make sure the food you're fermenting is completely submerged. In contrast, acetobacter fermentation is aerobic – so not only do you need air, you can speed up the process by introducing a supply of air. Commercial operations have a variety of different ways of introducing air. We're not a commercial operation, but we did have the fish tank pump that Elizabeth got for last spring's compost tea. After a thorough cleaning and some new hose lines, I used that.

The fish tank pump worked like a charm. Again, I added some unpasteurized cider vinegar to introduce the acetobacter. The cider foamed up quite a bit during the process, and I set it outside in the garage so that we didn't have to hear the hum. I put a little cheesecloth around the top of the jug to keep the fruit flies out, and let it sit out there for about a week. 


As you can see, the vinegar is fairly opaque, a result of the opaque cider I started with. In a side-by-side comparison with cider vinegar from the store, it's not quite as sweet – likely a result of the initial alcohol fermentation. Next time, I might try stopping that fermentation before the specific gravity gets all the way down, so that there's some residual sugar. The other next thing to try is to make vinegar out of other alcoholic liquids. In addition to wine vinegar, starting with beer would make malt vinegar.

One final note – we'll use this vinegar for salads and cooking, but not for canning. While the vinegar is quite tart, and it seems comparable to the tartness we've got from store vinegar, we don't have the equipment to test the acidity, and so there's no way to be sure it's got the 5% acidity needs to ensure safe canning.

Tables and Benches

Guest post by Tom today...

For my birthday last month I asked Elizabeth's dad Tim if we could work together on a new table and chairs for our back patio. We've had a round metal table and chair since our Pittsburg, CA days, but it's gotten pretty wobbly with age, and it's okay if there's just four of us, but that's about it. We've got some folks coming over later in September for a farm-to-table lunch (an auction item we offered for City College's Culinary Arts program's Wok on the Wild Side fundraiser), so that was also a good impetus for getting something new. Finally, it was a great opportunity to learn a bunch from Tim, working on a project from start to finish.

As per usual, Tim started by sending over a complete set of drawings that he'd worked up with the Google SketchUp 3D modeling system. Tim works up the entire design, works up details of each component of the finished product, and also produces full-size templates to guide construction.

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Overall design

Table and bench legs

Table and bench legs

We got started two Saturdays ago. Tim had sourced some 10'+ long sections of redwood lumber, which we used for the tops of the tables and benches. We also recycled some old growth redwood that had once been a hot tub for the posts, feet, and spreaders. It was a noisy and dusty start, but very interesting taking rough sections of redwood, cutting them to length, running them through the thickness planer to get a flat surface, then through the jointer and table saw to get the desired width. The recycled hot tub wood was already at the desired thickness, but we had to cut items to length, and we used the full-size templates to mark off the various notches. The table is bolted together, so I wound up spending some quality time with the drill press. It was a long first day, but we would up with all of the parts cut and drilled, ready for assembly.

Table and bench tops

Table and bench tops

Artistically blurry image of many many parts

Artistically blurry image of many many parts

Last Saturday we got back together to start assembly, bolting together the legs and feet, then screwing the support structure to the table and bench tops. We got mostly done on Saturday, and were able to wrap up construction on Sunday and bring everything over to our house.



There was still work to be done -- we had to put some wood sealer on all of the surfaces. Tim did the benches during the week, and I finished up the tables on the weekend.

Elizabeth likes the flexible nature of the tables -- we can put them side-by-side (as pictured above), or end-to-end, or just as two separate tables. We can seat eight very comfortably, and can probably seat twelve, so that's a big jump up.

As always, when doing a project, there's particular thoughts that come to mind:

  • Boy, it's nice having the proper tools when trying to create a project like this. For example, we needed to have a pretty extraordinary amount of precision drilling bolt holes in the wood, so that everything would fit together and the tables and benches would be level. Having precise measuring tools and technique and a drill press really helped. It's more than an ease factor -- by having good tools, you don't get frustrated, and it makes you want to do more.
  • There's really no replacement for working with someone who has expertise in a field. Sure, with the set of plans and free time I could probably figure things out (mostly), but there's a hundred little details that only come out when you're working with someone.
  • I know it's cliched, but don't stop learning. Tim's able to build everything from an 18th century Pembroke table with inlay to a Maloof-style standing desk, but he's finding new areas to explore. His most recent focus has been on hand-carving details, like this chip carved trinket box. For our project, he made a sign for one of the table stretchers.

The Whole Cow

Guest post from Tom today. Fair warning - if butchery isn't your thing, then perhaps I can interest you in one of Elizabeth's posts on tomatoes.

I got a chance on Friday night to continue my butchery studies with the Institute of Urban Homesteading. Last time it was the pig class. This time -- the Whole Cow.

We gathered once again at the home of Seth Peterson in Berkeley. Seth is a chef and fan of all things meat. There were eight of us in class, and Seth had procured a quarter of a cow (and by that I mean two of the major parts of one side of a cow).

Seth got the cow from True Grass Farm, a family farm in Marin County that raises organic grass-fed beef. The land has been in the family since the 1860's, and they're working hard with rotational grazing to be good stewards of the land.

Before we get to the pictures, a quick anatomy lesson. A side of beef is broken out into four major regions:

As I mentioned, we had two of these to work with -- specifically, the round and the loin. We got started with the round, which the folks at True Grass Farm had further broken down into sections, or primals. Here's what we started with:

You can see the shank over on the left (the part of the leg below the kneecap), the femur bone on top, and the meat from the front of the leg (with the kneecap) under that, and the rest of the round on the right.

Most of what we did with the round was seam butchery - cutting along the natural seams between the major muscles so that you wind up disassembling into whole muscles. Once you have a whole muscle, it can be broken down into further parts. We also spent quite a bit of time removing silver skin - thin layers of connective tissue that would be tough to eat. After some hesitation, pretty soon the whole class was in on the act:

Nothing went to waste - the bits we trimmed off went into a bowl of stock parts later. Oh, and that big femur bone? Time for the bone saw!

I got to take one of the big knobs home (for stock), and a section of marrow bone, too.

Through it all, we discussed different ways of cooking up the bits we were taking home. We even cooked up a little tail bit of filet mignon and sampled it - delish! All of us went home with about 10lbs of assorted cuts.

This class reinforced a number of ideas we discussed in the pig class:

  • Butchery is about choices. The same part of the cow can get transformed into a number of different cuts, depending on how you decide to cut it up.
  • Just like there's more to chicken than chicken breasts, and more to pig than pork tenderloin, there's more to a cow than steaks and ground beef. One of the parts I brought home is a section of shank, suitable for osso buco. We're never had osso buco, much less cooked it, but it'll be interesting to try.

All in all, another good class from the Institute.