DIY Vinegar From Thomas Jefferson

Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins, photo by Susan Lutz 2015.
Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins,  copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs, and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized—a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peek acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier– and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.

I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of Maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution; where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders; a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the arts of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian winemaking, and Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.

Ancient Roots of Vinegar Culture

Hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Charlottesville, VA, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3,000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people like Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar – and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.

Making Your Own

Sandor Katz at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

There are extremely elaborate, highly-measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called Acetobacter and yeast—the two microorganisms required for vinegar- making– are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins, and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this – starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.

Step One: Sugar to Alcohol

Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol—a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, Acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home-brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book Wild Fermentation. Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band, and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.

Step Two: Alcohol to Acetic Acid

peach vinegar
A “mother” begins to form in my peach skin vinegar, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin Aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Sandor Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance it seemed like a food safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.

This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother” – a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the Acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.

I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness – a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidy liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.

Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at it’s maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over—a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.


vinegar mother, Susan Lutz
A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds. A passionate wine-maker and vinegar-maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”

I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.

Keep Your Vinegar Alive

Gabriele Rausse, photo copyright Susan Lutz
Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard, copyright Susan Lutz, 2015.

The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized – the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation. The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5% should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.

Up until now, I’ve bought commercially-produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar-makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.


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We Can Thank Bacteria For The Smell of Rain


Yesterday my oldest daughter asked why it smelled so wonderful after it rained.  I had to admit that I wasn’t sure, but that we’d find out.  A quick internet search revealed that there are actually many “rain smells” and they do not all have the same cause.  A bit more cyber-reserach seemed to point to bacteria as the source of the smell my daughter enjoyed so much.

We’re big fans of bacteria around our house– anyone who likes bread, beer, and cheese relies pretty heavily on the stuff– but I was surprised to credit bacteria with our favorite rain smell.  According to the folks at, the particular rain smell that we associate with rain (and with being in the woods) is the smell of a bacteria called Actinomycetes releasing it’s spores into the moist air.  Check out this link for more information on Actinomycetes and rain smells in general. It’s fascinating stuff.

So it turns out that we have one more thing to add to the list of the many wonderful things that bacteria do for us human beings.


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Marcella Hazan’s Love of Loquats

Marcella Hazan died this past Sunday at age 89.  I mourn her passing along with millions of people around the globe who read her cookbooks or were lucky enough to take a class at her cooking school in Venice, Italy.  Mrs. Hazan was known for her passion for Italian cooking and for precise, yet simple recipes that helped countless Americans learn to cook authentic Northern Italian food.

As a relative newbie in the world of food journalism, I probably have no place writing about this icon, and others are far better suited to singing her praised.

But I had a single, brief, but very important encounter with Ms. Hazan that I cherish.

This past May, I wrote an article about loquats for Zester Daily.  I love loquats and am always trying to convince people how delicious they are, often with little success.  The loquat piece got a surprising amount of comments, and among them – several steps down – was a magnificently cranky response that chided one of the other commenters for calling loquats “insipid.”  Then after declaring loquats “paradisiacal,” the writer spun on me for complaining that I didn’t know what to do with my backyard fresh fruit.


“What we would have given in northern Italy to have found ripened loquats at the market,” she admonished.  “Why should anyone expect any experience more enjoyable than just eating them, peeled of course in most cases, figs, peaches, and pears, and loquats included.”

The author of this opinionated rebuke signed herself Marcella Hazan.

That Marcella Hazan.

Well, that put me in my place.  There’s no doubt that her response to my article was cranky.  But I love cranky.  To me, an occasional burst of crankiness is nothing more than a sign of passion.  There are times when things MUST be done a certain way—the right way.  Whether I agree or disagree, I respect a person who takes a stand.  Marcella Hazan knew how things should be done and she was happy to tell us all in no uncertain terms.

What I also loved about her response was that it was a comment on another comment!  Marcella Hazan, award-winning, internationally acclaimed food writer, was still in the trenches — reading not only articles but blogs and their comments, and calling out those who were clearly wrong – an 89-year-old street-fighter of food journalism who had no qualms about starting a flame war when it was called for.

I was delighted.  And I still am.  To discover that Marcella Hazan had read my article was very special.  To have her berate me for my opinions was even better – particularly since Ms. Hazan’s opinions came from hard-won experience.  And though our interaction was brief, I mourn the fact that it will be no more.

And it reminds me that this matters.  Food writing has become a conversation, thanks to the internet and publications like Zester Daily.   It’s an international conversation that stretches across the world and across cultures.  It’s a conversation that includes everyone from newbie food writers like myself to iconic figures like Marcella, who literally changed the way America eats.  I have loved food and food writing all my life, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this greater world.  Marcella welcomed me as an equal.  An equal who was wrong.  But an equal.





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Eat Sunday Dinner Classics: Shattered

Every Wednesday brings you a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults.  This essay originally posted on June 21, 2011.  


This post has been a long time coming— mostly because I’ve been so heartbroken that I haven’t wanted to think about the “unfortunate incident”, much less write about it. But here goes…

About a month ago I broke the lid to my grandmother’s favorite Guardian Ware pot with tempered glass lid. She used it to cook every meal I ate at her house and I think of her every time I cook with it. I inherited the pot just after she died ten years ago, and I’ve always known that I was putting the glass lid at risk by using it (especially since I live in earthquake territory). But I believe in using family heirlooms (in spite of the Sugar Bowl Tragedy of 2010.) I figured it was better to enjoy using my grandmother’s pot and thinking of her on a daily basis than to keep it it packed away “for safekeeping”.

My grandmother’s pot has an amazingly thick bottom and it’s a pleasure to cook with. I sometimes fear I shouldn’t use it because it’s aluminum, but then I decided that it’s magical cooking properties make it worth the possible risk of cooking in aluminum (which nobody can seem to agree on anyway). Until I started cooking with this pot I was unable to make rice without burning it. I know I could get a rice maker, but that’s just one more piece of equipment to clutter up my kitchen and I already have a box of pots and pans in the garage labeled “secondary cooking equipment”. I haven’t opened the box in almost two years and I don’t miss anything in it.

I think the real reason that I was so upset about breaking the lid is that I know it was an accident that could have been prevented if only I’d been paying attention to what I was doing. I remember the exact moment I looked at the glass lid on top of my microwave and thought, “Huh- I should move that. It’s going to get knocked off and break.” Five seconds later, it did. I knew before it hit that there was no way it would survive the trip. I burst into tears the second I heard the crash.

I was miserable and I lunged for the phone to call my mother even before I cleaned up the broken glass. This is not normally my natural reaction, but I figured that if anyone would understand how bad I felt, it would be my mother. After all, the pot had belonged to her mother and my mother had given it to me. I felt guilty about breaking the lid and telling my mother was kind of like confessing. Through my tears I told my mother that I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless. At that moment I realized that although I was upset at losing the lid, it was my own lack of attention that was really upsetting me.

Normally, I am very good at paying attention. In fact, it’s a character trait that I value highly in myself and appreciate in others. You learn a lot when you pay attention to the things going on around you and to the people and objects that you value. Only a few days earlier I’d given my photo students a lecture about paying attention in class. I told them that understanding and analyzing photographs was simply a matter of paying attention to what they saw in the frame. I described what I saw in a single Cartier-Bresson photograph for a full twenty minutes. (I could have gone on longer, but decided I’d made by point by then.) I also told them that their open-book final exam would be easy if they had taken good notes throughout the term and PAID ATTENTION in class and when doing their reading. Then I proceeded to give them 90 percent of the answers on the final exam they’d be taking in two weeks. I figured if I was going to give my students a lecture about paying attention, I’d better make it worth their while.

This lecture ran through my brain as the lid to my grandmother’s pot fell to the floor. I knew I could get a replacement lid. The old lid was chipped anyway, so it wasn’t such a bad idea to get a new one. What was really bothering me was the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention. I was feeling lazy and tired and in pain when I put the lid on top of the microwave. I’d been in the middle of cooking the first meal I’d prepared since injuring my shoulder several weeks earlier and it was harder than I thought it would be. My shoulder ached as I lifted a cast iron skillet off the stovetop and put it on top of the microwave next to the lid. My arm dropped unexpectedly with the weight and the jerk of this unsteady movement led to the demise of the lid. On some level, I knew that this was a stupid thing to do and yet I did it anyway. I was too tired and lazy to behave responsibly. And this made me crazy. It’s been weeks since the accident and I haven’t made a decent batch of rice since then.

One of my least favorite character traits is that I have trouble making allowances for myself that I easily forgive in others. And I have trouble letting go. But my parents have just arrived for a two-week visit and my five year old is clinging to my mother’s neck as I type these words, saying “I’ve been waiting for this moment!” I guess it’s time to let go. To forgive myself, forget about the broken lid and enjoy the visit.

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