Good Wine Gone Bad

The Living Room

    There are a thousand stories in the big pantry. Countless possibilities. Why, if tomorrow came and the local megamart locked its doors, if the refrigerator ran away from home, and took my freezer with it, I'd still have my pantry. A properly stocked pantry can support good eating for a very long time indeed. I've got everything in here, from rice to beans, beef jerky to canned sardines. I've got vegetables, fruit, nuts, pasta, and, of course, I've got vinegar.
    If there's a more potent and poetic multi-tasker in the kitchen, I don't know what it is. I love this stuff in its many many guises. How much do I love it? Well, follow me.

The Vinegar Cellar

    Ha, ha, ha, ha. Ahh, I dug it myself. Come on down. It's safe ... mostly.
    Ha, ha, ha, ha. Welcome to my vinegar cellar. [Inhales deeply] Just smell the air, it's ... Oh, sorry. You can't. But I keep them all here: from champagne vinegar to aged sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar to cider vinegar, plain old cheap distilled white vinegar, and, of course, balsamic vinegar. I've even got this one. It's so old, and so expensive, I actually locked it up and threw away the key, so that I would never use it.
    Every one of these vinegars has a unique flavor. And as Steve Martin said in The Jerk, "a special purpose". I mean, consider this bottle of vinegar. Where did it come from? How is it made? What can you do with it besides dye Easter eggs and toss a salad? Well, if you've ever asked yourself these questions, you've come to the right cellar, my friends. Because not only is vinegar my favorite pantry pal, it's seriously ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Kitchen

    Literally translated, vinegar means "sour wine" in French. Now the sour comes from acetic acid, and that acid is formed when a very specific family of bacteria called acetobacters metabolizes alcohol in the presence of air.


    With the possible exception of college-aged males, acetobacters are just about the only critters on earth who can actually thrive on alcohol. Now these aren't actual pictures of acetobacters, but they're small. Who's to say? Besides, producing water and acetic acid as by-products of their binging, certain acetobacters create a strange, slimy disk referred to as a "mother".
    This very strange, unsettling-looking thing is actually almost 100% cellulose, the same stuff that makes up plant stems. It's called a "mother" because it is so packed with acetobacters, that even tearing off just a little piece of this and putting it into another alcohol-bearing liquid like wine, will turn it into vinegar.
    Although kits are available for home vinegar makers, most of us rely on commercially-made vinegar, the best of which is created via a very old method called the Orléans (pron: oh-lee-AHN), or Orleans method, named after Orléans, France, where the method was pioneered. To find out more, let's go on a field trip.

Classic Wine Vinegar – Modesto, CA

GUESTS: The Nicolau Clan
              Wally Nicolau, Vinegar Maker

    Welcome to Modesto, California. This is the Classic Wine Vinegar Company. These barrels are full of vinegar. Around here, they do things the hard way, the old-fashioned way, the long and difficult way. And this is a family business, by the way. It's run by the Nicolau [pron: NICK-allow] family.

AB: Hi.


AB: Wait a second. Where's Wally?

NICOLAU CLAN: Over there.

AB: Thanks. [goes looking for Wally and finds him]

    This is Wally Nicolau. He runs the place.

AB: Hey Wally, do me a favor, and give me the run down on the Orléans method. Tell about the actual process, the steps that would go into making just one batch.

WALLY: It takes four good things. It takes time, good wine, a good mother, and good barrels.

AB: So each one of those things brings something to the party.

WALLY: The first thing you do is, you add culture to the oak barrel.

AB: That's the mother.

WALLY: The mother.

AB: Okay.

WALLY: And then on top of that culture, you want to add fresh wine, and that fresh wine is the food for the culture. And then, you want to make sure that you leave enough air space in the barrel. This is a 60-gallon barrel and we're only going to put about 45 gallons in it.

AB: And I notice you've got them plugged up with what looks kind of like a, just a cotton ball in a little sack, so it can breathe, right?

WALLY: Because over a period of time, you're going to have evaporation, and evaporation is all part of the system. And it brings a distinct flavor that comes also from our culture and from the wine.

AB: Okay, so time is really of the essence here. And not just the time that it takes for the mother to convert the alcohol to acetic acid, but it's also about the time that it takes for the evaporation to take place.

WALLY: With the right amount of air, and just the right amount of vinegar, wine stock takes about 12 to 15 months to get at full conversion. We like to see over six percent acidity, because we know at six percent acidity, all the alcohol's been consumed, the majority of it.

AB: Okay, so let me see if I've got this right. Barrel, wine comes in—good wine, quality matters—you put the wine and the mother in the barrel, you wait 15 months for them to do what they need to do. You come back. You draw out samples. You do some scientific tests because you're a chemist, right? You're a chemist? You come back and then you pump out all of the vinegar?

WALLY: No, we don't pump it all out. What we do is we want to pump out only about 30 gallons and leave some of that mother at the bottom. And then what happens is we add the fresh wine. And as I said, the conversion starts all over again.

AB: So, great. I think it's about time we met your mother.

[the move to another part of the factory]

AB: Wow.

WALLY: Alton, meet Mom.

AB: Um, hi, Mom. Um, Wally, why is she down on the bottom of the bottle like that?

WALLY: Well, when the mother is converting, they stay up on top, but as soon as the conversion is through, they fall to the bottom.

AB: Oh. Is she dead?

WALLY: No. Just dormant.

AB: Oh, okay. So if we were to pour some of this out and put in some fresh wine, she'd perk right up again.

WALLY: Just take right off and start her cycle all over.

AB: Well, now, if you always keep some vinegar in the barrels when you empty them, why do you need Mother?

WALLY: Oh, it's our insurance policy.

AB: Oh, of course. In case something were to happen. Is she the only one?

WALLY: No. Got about twenty of them.

AB: Wow, twenty mothers. [shudders] Bluhhh, gives you the shakes just thinking about it. Well, nice to meet you, Ma'am.

WALLY: Okay, Mom. Bye-bye.

The Vinegar Cellar

    Although it could be argued that the Orléans method produces the world's best vinegars, it takes time, and time is money. And that's why a clever industrialist came up with another way; a way that is faster and, of course, cheaper. What you do is you take yourself a big vat of wine and you inoculate it with a free-floating form of acetobacter, one that doesn't create a mother. Then you just percolate oxygen into that tank continuously until it turns into vinegar, which is usually one, maybe two days. The problem is, is that this liquid will never ever possess the kind of flavor and texture delivered by the Orléans method.

Hippocrates prescribed vinegar for many ailments from
skin rashes to ear infections to "bad humors".

The Vinegar Cellar

    With the possible exception of French wine, no other food in recent history has caused as much commotion and confusion as balsamic vinegar. [unlocks the bottle he previously said he'd thrown the key away for] Oh, I didn't really throw away the key. But I did hide it ... just, not from myself.
    Now real balsamic vinegars hail from Italy, of course: the Emilia-Romagna region, which is right up here [points to where the "boot" of Italy meets the main continent of Europe], and they are very labor-intensive. First, you have to get some white Trebbiano grapes, and you squeeze them. You take the juice and you cook it until the sugars are concentrated to right around 40 percent. Then you put it into barrels which have already been infected, so to speak, with acetobacters. Now here's the cool part. This is done in really hot rooms. And as the water evaporates out of the barrels, of course, the liquid reduces. And as it does, it's moved to progressively smaller barrels. Now this takes a minimum of 12 years, but sometimes as many as 100 years, okay. A hundred. The result is, well, it doesn't really look like vinegar at all. It's a very, very deep brown, almost black syrup, that manages to be sharp and sweet, meaty and floral, all at the same time.
    Now this is not the kind of vinegar that you want to use as an ingredient in a vinaigrette. You want to use this as a fine sauce. I like it on ice cream, cantaloupe, berries. Sometimes, I just kind of like a little taste of it. [tastes] Ahh, better than good brandy. Excuse me.

The Kitchen

    Since the acetic acid molecule is highly volatile, it has no trouble making the jump from liquid to gas phase. Now this means that vinegar produces a positively pungent aroma which often forces the diner to abandon his or her meal before the fork even has a chance to meet the mouth. Now one of my favorite vinegar applications is a cooked salad, and it gets around this fact by locking the vinegar into a solid phase from which it cannot escape until it melts in the mouth.

    Step one: place a metal loaf pan in your freezer, thusly. Then pour in one half of a cup of red wine vinegar. Now we're going to need this rock solid, so freeze for at least two hours. Overnight would be better.

1/2 Cup Red Wine Vinegar
    Start with two hearts of romaine. You could actually start with entire heads of romaine, but you'll want to peel off the outer leaves. Take off the ends and split them in half. Then, grate yourself some cheese—Parmesan, that is—about one cup, and use the good stuff for this, okay? Excellent. You'll also need about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a bit of fresh ground pepper. 2 Hearts of Romaine
1 Cup Finely Grated
    Parmesan Cheese
1 Tbs. Olive Oil
Freshly Ground Black Pepper

    Hardware-wise, you'll need some spring-loaded tongs like this and a basting brush. I like the silicone one, it's bouncy.
    Lube up a non-stick griddle with a little no-stick spray and then brush just a little bit of olive oil onto the cut side of the romaine, just enough to get our cheese and things to stick. Oh, first, fresh ground black pepper, please, just a bit. And then straight into the cheese which has been moved to a baking dish long enough to accommodate two halves of that romaine. Just kind of push down to get good adhesion, and then also push it down onto the griddle so that the cheese and the metal make full contact.
    In one to two minutes, the cheese should be nice, beautiful, brown and crunchy. Now I'm laying that off onto this little refreezable ice mat so that the back of the lettuce will stay nicely chilled. There we go. The point is, is we do want it to be salad-like, and if the heat from the cut side goes all the way through to the rib side, then the whole salad thing will be kind of ruined. Now, the vinegar.
    Time to retrieve your vinegar—which should be nicely solidified—and grab yourself a fork. Not that you have to keep that in the freezer, mind you. [scrapes the vinegar crystals with the fork as if making a vinegar granita] Grasp the lettuce thusly, and sprinkle the vinegar on. Just like dressing up a hot dog with relish. Next step, consume. [tastes] Mmmm. Hot/cold, sharp/sour, oil/vinegar. It's a hot dog. It's a salad. No, it's both, and it's good eats to be sure. And since the vinegar is frozen, it's not nearly as volatile, so it doesn't tickle your nose until it tickles your tongue.
    Legend has it that the greatest meat/vinegar dish of all time was invented in Germany, around 800 A.D., by none other than the great medieval king of all these lands, Charlemagne. Now I believe this just like I believe those rumors about Catherine dé Medici inventing the fork, or Charles Monét inventing the chocolate mousse, or was that Manét? Monnay? I don't know. Either way, I ain't buying it.
    I suspect that Sauerbraten was borne of necessity. I mean, keep in mind, up until, you know, 150 years ago, the only way to preserve meats was, well, you could dry it in the wind, you could cure it in salt, or you could soak it in vinegar. Vinegar is really a better method because vinegar contains antimicrobial agents. Now, let's talk about regionality. Sauerbraten was supposedly born in the Rhine Valley. That's a pretty juicy wine region of Germany, so it makes sense that the people there might use vinegar as a preservative. But, dishes that are soaked in vinegar and then cooked in vinegar tend to be really, really sour. So, it also makes sense that the folks around there would build some kind of sweet sauces to counteract all that acidity.
    Now, that sauce is the very heart and soul of what sauerbraten is to this day. My method pays heavy respect to the tradition, but I've taken the liberty of making a few modifications. The first thing we do is build ourselves a pickle. And for that, we'll need a pan kind of like this. [looks to be a 3 to 5 quart stock pot]

Malt vinegar is made from unhopped beer. (It's great on fries.)

The Kitchen


    Into this pan, place two cups of water, one cup each cider vinegar and red wine vinegar, a medium onion, chopped, a large carrot, chopped, a tablespoon plus one teaspoon of kosher salt, half a teaspoon of ground black pepper, two bay leaves, six cloves, 12 juniper berries, and a teaspoon of mustard seeds, all of which should be easy to find in the spice section of your local megamart. Now cover this and bring it all to a boil over high heat. Then, drop the heat and simmer nice and low for ten minutes. Now since vinegar becomes a little volatile when it is heated, you might want to activate any of your ventilation control systems that you might have around, even if it's just opening a window.

2 Cups Water
1 Cup Cider Vinegar
1 Cup Red Wine Vinegar
1 Medium Onion, Chopped
1 Large Carrot, Chopped
1 Tbs. + 1 tsp. Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp. Ground Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves
6 Cloves
12 Juniper Berries
1 tsp. Mustard Seed
    Now, we've got the sour part working, so let's work on the braten; that is, the roast. And for that, we will need three and a half pounds of bottom round. 3 1/2 Bottom Round

BULL: [is watching static on TV, it moos]

AB: All right, get around there, little doggie. You shouldn't watch too much TV. It's bad for you. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

    Now, the round is, of course, is the entire back leg of the beef critter and it's named after the shape of the bone that runs through it. Now, technically, it is the femur, but asking your butcher for some, you know, bottom femur just sounds creepy. Now the bottom round, from here to here, distinguishes itself from the top round because it's got more connective tissue, and in a long-cooking dish like sauerbraten, more connective tissue is a good thing.

BULL: [moos]
AB: What's that? Why can't we use chuck?

    Well, besides being, you know, fattier, and containing more gristle, I really think that the bottom round has more beef flavor. And a dish like this that's got a very, very strong marinade, we need all the beefiness we can muster.

AB: Now, get on there, little doggie. Scram. And don't do anything I'll regret on my living room ...

    Why do they call them "doggies" anyway? They're cows. It's a very different animal.

    Traditional cooking wisdom clearly states that dishes like sauerbraten, i.e. pot roasts, should be marinated, then seared and braised. Why? Because up until the mid-20th century, it was believed that searing sealed in juices. If that were true, then searing would also seal juices out, juices like our marinade. But we've learned since, that searing doesn't seal anything, in or out. So I say, why not make things easy on yourself, and sear well on all sides while the marinade is simmering.

3 1/2 - 4 lb. Bottom Round

    Now, let's take some time to review our searing procedures, shall we? Always rub the meat with a little bit of oil—safflower, canola, vegetable, whatever—before searing. Never put the oil in the pan, or it'll burn, make a lot of smoke, and a lot of stink. Always salt the meat before it goes into the pan, but no pepper, because pepper burns.

1 Tbs. Vegetable Oil

    Once the meat is in the pan, don't go messing with it. Do not touch it. Don't move it for at least 30 seconds so that it can develop good contact with the pan, and therefore, a good crust. Last, but not least, never ever poke it with a fork. Use your tongs. Why?

AB: Hit it, Thing.

THING: [pokes holes in a plastic bag with a large fork, the liquid pours out]

AB: Thank you, Thing, for that meat-handling demonstration.

    Aggressive little guy.
    Once the marinade has simmered, remove the lid, let it cool down for a few minutes. Then when the meat is nice and seared, as it is, you may deposit it directly into the marinade. Now you notice we used a pot that is as small as possible, so that the meat will be as submerged as possible. Now we're going to let this sit on the counter for about an hour, to cool down, and then stash it in your chill chest for a minimum of three days. [the fridge is too full] Oh bother. Actually, five days would be even better. That will certainly give enough time for the meat to go through an amazing metamorphosis. Your patience will be rewarded.

If the meat isn't completely submerged, flip it over once a day.

    When cooking time comes, simply remove the meat, pour in one-third of a cup of sugar, whisk well, replace the meat, put a lid on top, and slide into a 325 degree oven, until the meat is fork tender, about four hours.

1/3 Cup Sugar


Adding sugar to the meat any earlier would over-sweeten the cooked beef.

The Kitchen

    [pours the cooked liquid through a strainer] Now any good German Hausfrau would probably find this sauce to be a little, [tastes] mmm, a little on the acidic side, not to mention, a little bit thin. So, looking around, should we probably try to find some way to add some body as well as some sweetness? She might turn to her supply of Lebkuchen! Oh, blast! I'm all out of German Christmas spice cookies.

    Well, if you don't have any more of those around, you might go for five ounces—that's about 18—old-fashioned ginger snap cookies, crushed, of course. Excellent!

18 (5 Ounces) Dark Old-
    Fashioned Gingersnaps,

    Oh, usually, at least traditionally, one-half cup of raisins would be added to the sauce, but if you ask me, raisins are always optional.

1/2 Cup Seedless Raisens

    So, we will turn our heat up to medium-high, remove those solids now that they are completely spent, and slowly whisk in said cookie crumbs. And just let these cook until they are almost smooth.
    Ahh, in mere moments, you will have gone from an acidic, watery bath to a thick, beautiful, spicy gravy. Golden brown and delicious.

THING: [offers raisins]

AB: Ahh, I said they're optional. Gosh.

    Ahh, now dat's Good Eaten. Ha ha ha ha. You can slice your sauerbraten, traditionally, as I have here, or you can kind of do an American, you know, take on things, and shred it with forks like barbeque and put that on a kaiser roll. Kaiser: named after Kaiser Wilhelm, a German. Sauerbraten. German. Coincidence? I don't think so.
    [a bottle of white vinegar slides across the table] Oh, yeah, white distilled vinegar. I did say that it was worth having around in the kitchen, even though it's not worth having around in food.
    For instance, if you're stuck with some wilted salad greens, just add a bit of white vinegar to the soaking water and in no time, they will be revived. See, nice and crispy.
    Equal parts of vinegar and water make a righteous glass cleaner. Just wipe dry with crumpled newspaper and your glass will be streak-free.
    Copper cookware is nice to use, but difficult to clean. No problem. Just dissolve a teaspoon of salt in a cup of white vinegar and stir in enough all-purpose flour to create a thick paste. Rub this on the bottom of the vessel, wait fifteen minutes, rinse, dry, and behold. New pot luster!
    Since acetic acid is pretty gosh darn good at killing bacteria, molds, and viruses, white vinegar is great for cleaning cutting boards.

The Vinegar Cellar

    Well, I hope that we have inspired you to get a little sour wine into your cuisine. Few, if any substances can bring this much to the party without bringing a high calorie count along for the ride. My suggestion: play with your vinegar, and play often. Whether you're talking baked goods, salad, soups, meats, pickles, or marinades, I think you'll find that a pantry stocked with vinegar is a pantry stocked with good eats.
    See you next time.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010