Handiwork: Pineapple Vinegar

Story and Photography by Lisa Fain

In The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy includes a recipe for making pineapple vinegar that calls for nothing more than fresh pineapple, sugar and water. With a little patience and a bit of faith, in a few weeks you’re guaranteed a tangy, sweet liquid that’s perfect for jazzing up salads, marinating meat or brightening up salsas. I had to try it.

The word vinegar comes from the French vin aigre, which translates to sour wine.

And that’s what vinegar is—fermented fruit juice that has oxidized with sugar, transforming the alcohol into acetic acid. How does this happen? Air, and the natural spores that are found in it, cause this reaction when met with the juice for an extended period of time. This is why a bottle of air-exposed wine can have an off, sour flavor—it’s turning into vinegar.

Pineapple vinegar is a common ingredient in Mexican households, and while commercially produced versions can be found at a Mexican grocery, more often than not it’s made at home. Kennedy’s instructions for making it are simple: place brown sugar, pineapple peel and a bit of the fruit in a jar with water, cover with a cloth and let air and chemistry do their thing. In three weeks you should have vinegar.

I followed her instructions, checking the jar daily, but it didn’t appear anything was happening. Then one morning, I peeked in and, alarmingly, there was a white mucus-like alien substance swirling around my jar! Was this mold? Had my vinegar gone beyond the acidic molecular stage and turned rancid? I was about to chuck out the liquid and start over when a little research revealed that the white gunk was actually good—it’s known as the mother.

The mother is simply a concentrated form of the cellulose and acid bacteria. It’s the starter that sets the fruit juice sugars on their way to becoming acidic, and is a vital
and necessary part of the process. It’s not attractive, but the vinegar that surrounds it is edible. When serving the vinegar, the mother needs to be strained, but if you plan on making more fruit vinegars, consider scooping it out and storing it in a bit of the vinegar for later use. Much like using a bread starter, swirling the mother into a new batch will speed up the process.

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Relieved that my pineapple vinegar was behaving as it should, I let it sit for another week.  Then I decided to give it a try. I took a sniff and it smelled like pineapples and honey. But how did it taste? There were foamy bubbles on the surface, so I dipped deep into the jar, pulled out a spoonful of liquid and took a sip. Oh, wow! was all I kept saying. WOW! It had the sweet and tart notes of pineapple, with a bright, pleasant tang. Visions of vinaigrettes, ketchups and sweet pickles danced in my head—I couldn’t wait to cook with it.

Now I understand why pineapple vinegar is a Mexican household staple—it’s simple to make and has an outstanding flavor. With a little time, patience and motherly love, you won’t be sorry.

Go to Pineapple Vinegar for the complete recipe.