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Vinegar-NJFCC-art - 10/23/01


"Vinegar: Not Just for Cleaning Coffeepots" By THL Mirin ben DhIarmait.


NOTE: See also the files: vinegar-msg, Vinegar-art, verjuice-msg, wine-msg, yeasts-msg, sauces-msg, pickled-foods-msg, pickled-meats-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at:



Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                              Thank you,

                                   Mark S. Harris

                                   AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                        stefan at florilegium.org                                         




Not Just for Cleaning Coffeepots

By THL Mirin ben DhIarmait


Vinegar has been around for almost as long as there have been fermented beverages-10,000 years or more. The Babylonians used it as a preservative and as a condiment and it was they who began flavoring it with herbs. Roman legionnaires used it as a beverage. Hippocrates extolled its medicinal qualities and, indeed, it was probably one of our earliest remedies. Biblical references show how it was much used for its soothing and healing properties.(1)  During the Middle Ages it was often used medicinally.  It was used as a preservative with an almost indefinite shelf life.  It was used to contribute the tart flavors that we find so often in medieval dishes.  It was an all- purpose liquid whose use was so widespread that it is barely mentioned in many cookbooks of the time.


Unfortunately, in order to understand how vinegar was used medicinally in the Middle Ages a basic understanding of the humoral method of medicine is needed. Scully tells us that, "…because the bubonic plague was considered to be a sanguine (hot and moist) disorder or type of disease (the infected person had a fever and sweated), a common precaution whenever one left the protected atmosphere of oneÕs house and feared contamination was to cover the nose and mouth with a cloth soaked in vinegar (or perhaps in verjuice)."(2)  Vinegar had one serious drawback: it was considered to be unhealthful when pure.  He goes on to say, "A solution to the cookÕs dilemma lay in the mixture of sweetener, and so the sweet-and-sour taste in medieval European cookery was born."  The cooks in the royal and noble households for whom we have cookbooks would have to know what could be used when.  For Instance, in the winter cooks would have used more spices (hot and dry) and less vinegar (cool and moist) in their sauces to counteract the effects of the cold.(3)


        Vinegar was used widely throughout Europe as a preservative of food.  It has since been documented that vinegar can have an incredibly long shelf life and it does not need to be refrigerated.  Redon, Sabban and Serventi mention that vinegar and verjuice were "flavorings of paramount importance."  They go on to say that, "...there was also a wish to preserve foods: it was known that vinegar, wine, and verjuice, combined with spices, were the best of preservatives." (4) It should also be noted that wine was a costly part of the householdÕs budget.  Wine, ale, mead, and beer naturally become vinegar once exposed to air; throwing out this liquid was wasteful and simply not an option.  


In cooking vinegar was often used in the place of verjuice, as verjuice was seasonal and not always available.  The authors of The Medieval Kitchen state that, "Spices gave structure to the flavor of a potage or sauce but they needed a medium, a support and a liaison to make their presence felt.  They were dispersed in broths or other liquids, principally wine, verjuice, vinegar, and sour fruit juices." (5) Mr. Scully goes on to say, "Wine, vinegar, verjuice and must, then, afforded the medieval cook with a useful range of tasty liquid ingredients for sauces and broths."(6)  An interesting side note:  verjuice was used less in England as an ingredient in cooking due to the fact that England lacked the vast vineyards that existed in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.  It was far more common and accepted to use vinegar-little wonder with the travel time in getting wines from Italy and France to England!


During the Middle Ages the biggest problem that wine merchants had was keeping their product from becoming vinegar.  Corks as we know them today were not introduced and used until the 1600Õs (7), and on long ocean voyages it was tremendously difficult to keep wine and other alcoholic beverages from becoming contaminated with acetobacter.  It was the Romans that first started using barrels, switching from amphorae.  While amphorae were airtight if sealed correctly, barrels werenÕt.  Any exposure of air was enough to introduce the acetobacter and cause the wine to "go off" and begin the process of becoming vinegar.


So what is acetobacter?  Acetobacter is a variety of aerobic bacteria that has an affinity for alcohol. It consumes the alcohol in the liquid and transforms it into acetic acid.  Acetobacter, very much like yeast, can be disseminated by air, causing exposed wine to then be contaminated with the bacteria.  Wine stored in less than airtight conditions would have been a perfect candidate for this process, and the sloshing of the wine in its barrel during transport would have continuously exposed it to the air and any acetobacter contained therein.


Wine was too precious a commodity to waste should it become vinegar. New uses were created for this sour liquid and soon it became a household staple, intentionally created for use as a condiment and preservative.  It is mildly surprising to discover that the method used during the Middle Ages to create vinegar is still in use today.  The "Orleans Process" involved aging vinegar in the barrel over a period of time.  Mother (the filmy white veil-like liquid in vinegar that contains the acetobacter) is introduced into the wine barrel and the bungholes are covered in a fine mesh or cloth that allows air in but keeps undesirable bacteria and insects out. Vinegar made this way today is made in small batches, carefully supervised and considered to be especially desired by gourmands the world over.


True vinegar is arrived at through a two-step fermentation process.  Primary fermentation is the process that creates the alcoholic beverage, i.e., cider, beer, wine, or mead.  Secondary fermentation, or acid fermentation, is the introduction of the acetobacter into the liquid.  In fact, the formula for making vinegar can be read:


        Alcohol + oxygen + bacteria -> Acetic acid + water


In other words, to get vinegar you must start with a fermented, alcoholic beverage.


Another form of making vinegar can be found in the method used to make balsamic vinegar.  According to legend, balsamic vinegar had its beginnings in the Modena region of Italy in the eleventh century.  This very fine vinegar was, and still is, made from freshly pressed white wine that is fermented, boiled, and then allowed to age for a long period of time. Because this wonderful condiment is made in such small quantities, it is incredibly expensive.  A bottle of true, fine balsamic vinegar can go for over $50 for 100 ccÕs.  In fact, most of what we find in the grocery stores today is a type of balsamic vinegar that has been manufactured using a different (and far less time consuming) method from the true product.  For more on this please go to www.patyrus.it.


        There is another method for producing vinegar called "the quick vinegar process."  In this method the vinegar is brewed using two tanks stacked one on top of the other.  The top chamber is filled with wood shavings or some other material and the liquid (usually fermented apple cider in the US) is allowed to pour through the solid material to the bottom chamber.  The liquid is then circulated back to the top and allowed to percolate back down once again.  Mother is injected into this mixture and air is pumped into the upper chamber to encourage the process along.  This is a thoroughly modern process that creates a standard 5% acidity level in the vinegar.


        It should be made clear at this point that many different kinds of foods can be made to produce alcohol.  Indeed, everything from fruits to grains!  So long as the sugar (sucrose, glucose, maltose) is present at the time of brewing along with the yeast then alcohol can be the end result.  The suffix "-egar" represents any item that is made into vinegar from alcohol, such as "alegar", which is vinegar made with beer.


        To make good vinegar it is important to start with a good product.  Although many people allow their poorer-tasting wines to go to vinegar as a form of redemption, this does not always lead to a good result.  It is also important to make sure that the vinegar gets enough oxygen, as this is a crucial part of the vinegar making process!  Keep in mind that making vinegar is not a fast and easy process…it requires patience and frequent monitoring to make sure that the desired taste is being achieved.


        As mentioned above vinegar had many uses.  It was used as a preservative.  Many times it was used in the making of a condiment or to add flavor to a dish.  It was used in medicine.  I have been unable to find any documentation that shows it having been used as a cleanser, but I know that it is used that way now.  The uses for vinegar are practically unlimited.


        Vinegar was, and still is used, in pickling.  Some of the food items that were pickled were fish and other meats.  Pickling assured that these foodstuffs could be kept for a time when they would no longer be in season.  A caution must be given to all those who would re-create a dish using a medieval recipe: homemade vinegar is generally mild.  The USDA recommends that a pickling solution be made with vinegar that contains at least 5% acid content.  Many specialty vinegars have as much as 7% acid content, but it pays to check.  Do not use home made vinegar for pickling, as the acid content greatly varies.


There are many exceptional recipes for sauces and potages from period that use vinegar as a theme ingredient.  Here is the recipe for Green Sauce from The Medieval Kitchen: [pp. 169-170]


1 Slice dry country bread

5 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 Leaves sage, finely chopped   

1 Pinch ground black pepper

1 Pinch ground cloves

1 Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3 Tablespoons wine vinegar

2 Cloves of garlic, pureed (optional)

scant 1/2 Cup of water



Soak the bread in the water.  When it has softened, mash it with a fork and put it into the container of a blender.  Adds the herbs, the spices, and the garlic if desired, and blend thoroughly to bring out the flavor of the herbs and to create a smooth puree.  Gradually add the vinegar.  Add salt to taste.  This can also be done in a mortar.  Press through a sieve, and serve with roast meat, such as leg of lamb.


Here is a simple recipe for mustard from the same source: [pp. 177-178]


1 1/2 Cups white mustard seed   

1 3/4 Cups excellent quality white wine vinegar

1/4 Cup freshly ground pepper   

1/4 long pepper (or additional pepper)

3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 whole nutmeg grated and salt to taste


Soak the mustard seed overnight in vinegar to cover by about 1/4 inch.  The following day, make sure that he seeds have swelled and softened; you should be able to crush them between your fingers.  Strain them, reserving the vinegar.


In a blender, grind the mustard to a very thick paste, then blend in a little vinegar.  If the seeds are not all broken, continue to blend.  Gradually add additional vinegar until the consistency is neither too thick or too thin.  Add the spices and some salt.  Taste, and add more salt if necessary: the mustard should be fairly salty.


Scrape into a glass or glazed ceramic jar with a tight lid.  Close the jar and store in the refrigerator for a week or ten days before using.


        In my search for information on vinegar I found a lot of web sites that were useful.  I have decided to devote a section of this article to them.  First of all, I would like to highly recommend google.com as a research tool.  I can honestly say that I had the best results with them.


        One major source for the information in this article came from www.florilegium.org.  On the home page select 'food' then scroll down to 'vinegar'.  For those who have never visited Stefan li RousÕ florilegium, this is a wonderful source!  It was here under the FOOD section that I found the wonderful article "WhatÕs so special about vinegar?" by Mistress Christianna MacGrain (OP, OL, Meridies).  There is also a section devoted to the collected messages that have been posted on the SCA-Cooks List regarding vinegar.


        Another major source of information about vinegar on the Internet can be found at www.versatilevinegar.org.  This terrific web site covers everything from history to recipes that can be made with the different varieties of vinegar.  It is definitely worth paying a visit to!


        For a better explanation on the subject of the "quick vinegar process" pay a visit to www.kosherconsumer.org/vinegar.htm. This article goes into great detail describing the chambers, material used, and length of manufacturing process.  This article is obviously written for those of the Jewish faith, but the information is well written and quite concise.


        To learn how to make vinegar at home please visit http://www.inetone.net/mshapiro/cvinegar.html#  , http://www.gangofpour.com/diversions/vinegar/vinegar1.html , or  www.motherearthnews.com./askmother/gregs.shtml.

These web sites not only explain how vinegar is made today, they also explain how to make it at home safely.  Have questions?  Ask Mother! [motherearthnews] ThatÕs right, you can post questions to the site and get answers posted in return. Definitely worth a visit, especially if you would like to make other home-based items.




(1) http:/www.versatilevinegar.org/bodwhatisvin.html.


(2) Scully, Terence. p.79.


(3) Santich, Barbara: p. 51


(4) Redon, Francoise Sabban.  p.29


(5) ibid. p.23.


(6) op cit Scully.   p. 80


(7) Frere Jean Oudart (1654-1742) is credited with being the first person to use cork form the cork tree to stopper a bottle of champagne.  Until the late 1600's bottles had been corked with a wood cork wrapped in an olive oil soaked hemp rag or just the oiled rag alone.





Arano, Luisa Cogliati  The Medieval Health Handbook (Tacuinum Sanitatis"), George Braziller Inc. NY, NY, 1976.


O. Redon, F. Saban, and S. Serventi  The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy,  University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL 1998.


Santich, Barbara  The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today, Chicago Review Press, Chicago, IL, 1995.


Scully, Terrence  The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, NY, NY, 1995.














        In my search for Internet resources I found several books on this subject currently available.  Of these the two following appear to be most useful for SCAidans and can be found at www.bn.com or www.amazon.com for $20 or less.


1.     Vinegar:  The User Friendly Standard Text Reference and Guide for Appreciating, making, and Enjoying Vinegar by Lawrence J. Diggs.  This book is paperback and is 324 pages long.  The ISBN is 059514716X.

2.     The Incredible Secrets of Vinegar: The Quintessential Guide to the History, Lore, Varieties, and Healthful Benefits of Vinegar by Marie Nadine Antol.  This book is paperback and 192 pages long.  The ISBN is 1583330054.


Copyright 2001 by Maire Brown, 2700 Security Avenue Bakersfield, CA  93306.

<THLMairin at aol.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related

publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

2 Scully, Terence. p.79.


3 Santich, Barbara: p. 51

4 Redon, Francoise Sabban.  p.29


5 ibid. p.23.


6 op cit Scully.   p. 80


7 Frere Jean Oudart (1654-1742) is credited with being the first person to use cork form the cork tree to stopper a bottle of champagne.  Until the late 1600Õs bottles had been corked with a wood cork wrapped in an olive oil soaked hemp rag or just the oiled rag alone.


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org