Hippocrates prescribed vinegar as a panacea. The British used vinegar as an antiseptic during the Bubonic Plague, and Cleopatra dissolved precious pearls in a carafe of vinegar and drank it to prove that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. Sean Brock's teams at McCrady's and Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, use vinegar to enliven dishes and cocktails, express South Carolina's larder, and extend the seasons by preserving fruit and vegetable flavors. The chef and Southern Foodways champion believes so firmly in vinegar's potential that he employs a full-time "fermentation guy" to oversee the process.
"We use lots of vinegars here. It's really important to our cuisine," says Chef Jeremiah Langhorne, who recently departed McCrady's for a post in Washington, D.C. "It's a great way to put a twist on any of our dishes. For example, if we have strawberries on a dish, we use a strawberry vinegar to push the flavor." And that rings true for the ever-changing—sometimes 20 variations strong—vinegar pantry found in the McCrady's test kitchen, which features the likes of cherry wine vinegar, celery vinegar, sorghum vinegar, and even Jägermeister and Mountain Dew vinegars.
Aged Duck, Strawberry, Cress, Spring Onion with Strawberry Vinegar
"One of my favorites is the sorghum vinegar," says Langhorne. We use high-quality, really delicious sorghum, so it ends up having this insane flavor—almost like an aged Sherry vinegar. Some of the vinegars are only 6 to 8 months old, but they taste like a 10-year Sherry vinegar."
We joined Langhorne at McCrady's this summer to make peach vinegar, for which Langhorne prefers to use whole fruit. "It gives a deeper, richer flavor," he says. "The naturally occurring yeast in the skin of the fruit also helps to jump start the fermenting process." Like all vinegars, it involves a two-step fermentation process—the fruit first ferments into wine, and then the wine, with help of naturally occurring bacteria known as acetobacters, ferments into vinegar.
Langhorne makes mash-style peach vinegar. He pulses whole fruit in a food processor to break it down as much as possible. Next, he incorporates 10 percent sugar by weight. "As natural yeast eats the sugar, it'll produce alcohol as a by product. And that's how we get through the first stage of the fermentation." For vinegars made with from less sweet bases—celery, for example—he adds more sugar, measuring the Brix with a refractometer to his desired level of sweetness.
The second ingredient Langhorne adds is the "mother." The mother is made of cellulose deposits that form on the top of any vinegar as it ferments. "We use mothers from the previous vinegars that we've made. If you've made vinegar before you probably have some at hand," he explains. If not, you can start with unpasteurized vinegar from a grocery store—it has all the good and positive bacteria you'll need and will evolve over time in your kitchen.
Last, there's the alcohol to jump start the process. "Instead of adding yeast and waiting for all that alcohol to form and turn into a peach wine, we turn it into a peach wine right away by adding alcohol to it," says Langhorne, who uses Everclear so the flavors don't get watered down. He then covers the jar with linen, ties it with string, and leaves the bacteria to do their thing. It is important to remember to sterilize the jars really well and to tie the linen tightly so that nothing that's not supposed to be there gets in. Six to eight months later he has a vinegar with layers of flavor—a little acidic, a little sweet, a little sour, and a little fruity. "Making vinegar definitely has a learning curve. When we first started, for example we tried to make a celery vinegar, but it tasted more like juice than wine and would not ferment properly. Now, we've been doing it for three years and have been able to get better and better. It's important to follow your instincts." Especially as you follow in the footsteps of the world's great users and makers of vinegar.