How to Make and Use Vinegar, by St. Funogas

If there’s one thing we take for granted in our kitchens it’s vinegar. For a couple of bucks you can buy a gallon and it’ll last most people a year or more.

After the SHTF when every survivor must learn home canning as well as make their own cleaning products and limited antiseptics, vinegar making is a skill every household will need to master. Today it’s a fun activity and a way to put our canning waste to good use but after the Crash, it will be one of the most important food-preservatives available to us. Thus, it’s one more necessary skill we should all have on our TEOTWAWKI resumes.

Fortunately, it’s easy to make.

Post SHTF Home Canning

Only acidic foods can be processed with a water-bath canner. Things like cucumber pickles, pickled beans, chutneys, salsa, tomatoes, and jams can be processed using a simple water-bath technique. Not much else can. Fortunately, these are some of the most common garden items grown and preserved and some of these use a lot of vinegar per batch.

Vinegar-requiring items I home can each year from my garden include bread-and-butter pickles, pickled-bean salad, relish, and chutneys. Chutney has a wide variety of uses and there are hundreds of different kinds. Pickled-bean salad is good as a side dish as well as a salad ingredient. Cucumber pickles on the other hand, you can only eat so many! People who are just learning to do home canning generally go wild canning pickles. They’re so fun and easy for beginners they end up with what turns out to be a ten-year supply since they have so few uses. Or so we think. More about this later. A glance through any of the home-canning books will give you an idea of how many other garden items can be pickled such as okra and squash.

Vinegar-Making Ingredients and Receptacles

Vinegar can be made from a wide variety of things and most easily from nearly any kind of fruit or vegetable growing in our gardens. It can also be made from wild fruits growing on our property including native grapes and elderberries which are edible but sometimes not quite good enough to eat. Some vinegars are best for culinary uses, others for cleaning and safe pesticides. For me, apple vinegar and its derivatives are the best for culinary uses. The vinegars I make from cucumbers and tomatoes aren’t especially tasty but they work well for cleaning and rust removal.

Overripe and bruised fruit, mealy apples, as well as canning waste such as peels, cores, bruised and damaged portions of tomatoes, peaches, apples, etc. which are normally tossed onto the compost pile can be used for vinegar making. Other than moldy portions which must be avoided, pretty much all of the “yucky” parts of fruit and vegetables can be turned into vinegar, even wormy apples. A walk through a large fruit orchard will yield hundreds of pounds of fruit lying on the ground which is perfect for vinegar making. Things like crab apples which aren’t normally used for much can be used to make vinegar. Vinegar-making materials can also be frozen until enough are collected to make a batch.

Corn can also be used but I’m pretty sure that post-SHTF other products made from corn will command good prices and make an excellent barter item as well as run large and small engines once they’re converted over.

As for vinegar-making receptacles, I use two-quart mason jars and one-gallon pickle jars. Vinegar can be safely stored in glass jars and bottles as well as containers made from HDPE #2 plastic.

Let’s Make Some Vinegar

For this example, I’ll be using apples but the same instructions apply to nearly anything being used to make vinegar.

1. Start with a clean two-quart jar (or other container) and fill it ¾ full with chopped apples. There’s no need to remove the peels or cores before chopping. Chopping creates more surface area for the bacteria to work on.

2. Add half a cup of sugar, then enough water to just barely cover the apples.

3. Stir the mixture together and put a small piece of cheesecloth, muslin, or other mesh over the jar opening, held in place with rubber bands. This mesh allows air to pass through while keeping the insects out. At first I used a bandanna but I now prefer one-gallon paint filters with an elastic top. For those concerned about carcinogens, paint filters can be found online made of materials other than polyester.

4. Place the jar in a warm dark place. After a few days as the mixture begins fermenting, the contents of the jar will begin to expand and the level rise. For the first few days I keep a baking pan under the jar in case the contents overflow.

5. Stir the jar occasionally the first few days, then just once a day, and as the weeks progress, a weekly stirring is all that’s required. The entire fermentation process will take anywhere from a few weeks to over a month.

6. A layer of grayish-blue gel will form on the surface of the fermenting apples. Don’t worry, this is a good thing! This gel is called the “mother” and consists of cellulose inhabited by a gazillion of the yeast and acetobacter microbes which break the apples down to form the vinegar. The mother is sometimes a goo, other times like a small flimsy hockey puck. The mother can be used to inoculate other batches of vinegar but isn’t mandatory. If something other than a grayish-blue gel forms, the wrong microbes have started working and the batch should be tossed.

7. As the microbes break down the apples, a clear liquid layer will form at the bottom of the jar and soon you’ll begin to smell the vinegar. If the process seems to come to a standstill before much of the chopped apples have broken down or the flavor is not yet very vinegary and tart, add more sugar to give the yeast and bacteria a boost. By tasting the vinegar from time to time, you’ll know when it has reached the proper stage of taste and acidity. Though not necessary, I use pH paper to test the acidity. It generally comes out in the 2.5 – 3.0 range which is very acidic. pH paper is inexpensive and available online for under $10. To make it last, I buy the small rolls and cut off the smallest piece possible which I hold with tweezers. You’ll need the pH paper which specifically measures on the acid side of the range, from 0-6 pH. pH paper is also beneficial when canning tomatoes. I no longer add lemon juice to each jar before filling since I can test the pH and see it’s already where it needs to be.

8. When the bubbling has stopped, the fermentation process is complete. Filter the liquid into another jar and toss the solids into the compost bucket. This filtered liquid will still contain most of the vinegar-making bacteria and the mother will reform and become more visible

Some websites recommended using a coffee filter to strain the vinegar as it’s poured into jars. For me, it’s way too slow and beyond my patience level so I use a paint filter which leaves a fine sediment on the bottom of the vinegar jar. This is very normal and the jar can be shaken before use or the sediment can be left where it is. Before sealing in jars, some people bring the vinegar to a boil to kill the fermentation bacteria. This prevents the beneficial bacteria from forming a new mother and reduces the odds of the vinegar turning cloudy while in storage. The downside is, all of the beneficial probiotics are killed so I now skip the boiling step. Online and in health food stores, you can buy vinegar specifically advertising the fact that it still contains the mother and hence the probiotics.

9. Vinegar can be stored in any type of jar from mason jars to repurposed food jars or food-safe plastic containers (HDPE #2) like the ones used for the commercial vinegar we buy. I keep mine in the cool well house with a label indicating the date, pH, and what it’s made from. For this article I checked the pH of last year’s vinegar and the remaining jars still have the pH listed on the label when it was put into the jars. Vinegar has a virtually indefinite shelf life. Even if the vinegar becomes cloudy over time, it’s still 100% safe and edible. That’s an important feature to remember after the SHTF when “best-by dates” are a thing of the past and we’ll learn to judge food safety as all the generations before us have: with our taste buds, eyes, and noses.

Making Specialty Vinegars

Flavored vinegars are in a class of their own. They’re especially tasty and can be made using many different flavorings. These aren’t straight vinegars but are made by infusing apple cider vinegar with things like blackberries, figs, herbs, and citrus fruit to flavor them, then heating and adding sugar. These types of vinegars are useful in their own right and simple to make. Since I have blackberry bushes and a good harvest most years, I make blackberry vinegar to use in stir fries and salad dressings.

To make these specialty vinegars, start by filling a two-quart jar full of fresh slightly-crushed blackberries, then fill the jar with apple-cider vinegar up to the top of the berries. Put a lid loosely on top and let it steep for a week or two. Since this is not making vinegar but merely flavoring it via infusion, the jar can be left on a countertop, no dark closet is needed. For the first few days, tighten the lid and turn the jar upside a few times to mix the contents, then loosen the lid again. After a week or so, strain the vinegar off using a fine-mesh material. Heat the vinegar in a saucepan and when warm enough, add sugar and stir until it dissolves.

The first recipe I tried suggested one cup (100 g) of sugar per pint of vinegar. That turned out too sweet for my taste so I cut the sugar in half on the next batch. I would recommend starting at half a cup per pint and then keep tasting it as you add more sugar. Once the desired amount of sugar is added, bring the vinegar to a boil and simmer on low for a few minutes, then pour into jars. This blackberry vinegar is very flavorful in every recipe I’ve added it to. An online search will yield recipes for many other types of flavored vinegars.

As a side note, vinegar made directly from blackberries (and other fruits) will not retain the blackberry flavor, so this infusion method must be used.

Vinegar Uses

Vinegars have a lot of different uses but here are some of the things I use it for. You can research this topic on your own to see the wide variety of other applications.

Pickling – I consider pickling to be the most beneficial use of vinegar, especially after the SHTF and food preservation becomes a must.

Remember that deluge of cucumber pickles you made the year you learned home canning? I take jars of my bread-and-butter pickles, triple rinse to remove the salt, then use them in salads which I eat almost daily. I use the same rinse for pickled-bean salad. Both are also good in stir fries and other recipes. For this food-preservation reason, knowing how to make vinegar after the SHTF is such an important skill to have. Cucumbers are one of the easiest things to grow and the hardest to use up so give these two uses a try.

When home-canning tomatoes, most canning advice says to add lemon juice to each jar to ensure the pH is low enough so botulism spores won’t grow. Today and in a post-Crash world, vinegar serves the same purpose.

Salad Dressing – vinaigrette can be made many different ways from vinegar. When oil-based salad dressing are unavailable after the SHTF, specialty vinegars make good salad dressings by themselves.

Stir Fry – Flavoring stir fry is another excellent use for vinegar, especially flavored vinegars.

Bathroom Cleaning – The only DIY cleaning product I’ve ever tried that works well is made using 50/50 vinegar and Dawn (or equivalent) dish soap. It borders on miraculous, making a great soap-scum remover requiring no elbow grease. Textured bathtub floors are especially easy to clean using this vinegar cleaner and it also cleans a whole lot more. Make a small batch and give it a try.

Rust Remover – After inadvertently leaving some tools outside right before a big storm, everything had a light coat of rust when I found them two days later. I put everything into a shallow container and poured tomato vinegar over it until everything was covered. Six hours later the vinegar was brown and as I pulled out each wrench, socket, and other tools, most of the rust had disappeared. A quick brush with a stiff toothbrush removed most of the rest. Don’t try it on unplated metal surfaces. It made a mess of a test spot on my table-saw top and took some elbow grease to get it back to normal.


Personally, vinegar has many uses, some of which I didn’t discover until I started making my own.

I’ll let the reader do their own research on the health benefits of vinegar. Research published in peer-reviewed journals has shown that vinegar can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol, and decrease appetite among other things.

Vinegar is fun to make and like many other DIY projects, gives you a feeling of empowerment knowing there’s one more thing you can make by yourself.

The next time you have a lot of apple or carrot peels, overripe bananas, or fruits and vegetables which are over the hill and headed for the compost pile, try your hand at making a small batch of vinegar. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is and will add one more skill to your SHTF resume. Vinegar is one thing we won’t need to worry about running out of in a post-Crash world when we’ll need it more than ever.