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]
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
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.
NICOLAU CLAN: 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
AB: That's the mother.
WALLY: The mother.
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
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
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
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]
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
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
Hippocrates prescribed vinegar for many ailments from
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
AB: What's that? Why can't we use chuck?
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
Traditional cooking wisdom clearly states that dishes like sauerbraten,
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
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.
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
If the meat isn't completely submerged, flip it over once a
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
[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-
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.
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.
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.