Happy Sour: Sean Brock’s PBR Vinegar
Made from his grandma’s 40-year old starter
There are a number of things you can do with a can of PBR (that's Pabst Blue Ribbon). Stick it in a chicken; dump it in your pot of chili; heck, you might even drink it. Chef Sean Brock, of Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina, suggests you turn it into liquid gold: homemade vinegar.
“I’m pretty obsessed with vinegar,” says Brock, a 2010 James Beard Award winner. “It’s so easy. Back in the day, no one ever bought vinegar.”
As a child, Brock watched his grandmother make vinegar. When she died a few years ago, he inherited her 40-year-old vinegar starter. This base solution, which looks murky with gunk floating in it, like kombucha, is the vinegar mother. The stuff used to freak him out, he recalls, because it looked like a jellyfish.
Nowadays, Brock has no fear when it comes to vinegar. His garage is full of it, made from leftover wine and beer. At his restaurants, he uses it in just about everything, from glazes to sauces and soups. Considering it can take two months to make a batch, it’s not the cheapest DIY condiment, so he uses it sparingly. Thankfully, a little goes a long way.
“Basically, vinegar is a double-fermentation process, which means you start by making booze,” says Brock. “You let the booze oxidize, then acetic acid forms and you have vinegar. We’ve made it with every kind of booze you can imagine.”
Brock takes the DIY aspect of homemade vinegar to the extreme by starting with homemade wine. Every year, he makes 50 gallons each of Concord and Muscadine wine vinegar, beginning with the wine. He’s had some of it aging in whiskey barrels for a couple years so that it now has a deep molasses color and syrupy consistency, like balsamic vinegar. Recently, he even made his own sake for a Carolina Gold rice wine vinegar, which he promises is “unbelievable.” But, if you’re a vinegar virgin, you’ll want to start with a cheater batch that makes use of a store-bought starter. Here’s how:
Start with a vinegar base, like Bragg, an organic raw apple cider that has the live mother cellulose (that jellyfish-looking gunk) floating in it. Add three parts booze to one part vinegar base. If, per Brock’s sound advice, you want to make PBR vinegar, use three cups of PBR to one cup of Bragg. Mix them well, then wrap the container tightly with several layers of cheesecloth. Let the mixture sit it in a dark, somewhat cool place for about 4-6 weeks. The longer the better, says Brock. If you’re doing this in a warm climate, keep a fan on it to chase flies away.
So, how do you know when it’s done? “Just keep tasting it,” advises Brock, adding that PBR vinegar smells like “your carpet in college,” or stale beer, for a few weeks. Then, one day, you’ll taste it and it will be vinegar. When it’s done, keep a cup of it aside as a starter for your next batch, which will taste ever better – beerier – than the first batch, which retains some apple cider flavor from the Bragg.
“We’re programmed to think vinegar tastes nasty and sharp and has no character,” says Brock. “But homemade vinegar is mellow. You could drink it if you want. When you add it to a sauce or a soup, it’s like MSG or salt. It opens up your tongue. Once you get hooked on vinegar, you’re gonna have a garage-full like I do.”
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