SOME FERMENTATION PROJECTS are easy — a little technique and time are all you’ll need. But making vinegar?
“It’s more similar to brewing. It’s simple, but it can be finicky,” says Jessica Huszar, owner of Seattle-based Häxan Ferments.
Huszar believes in vinegar made the old-fashioned way, slow fermented over months using just a few ingredients. Most commercial vinegars — like many found at the grocery store — are made using an industrialized process that speeds up fermentation time, accomplishing in hours what Huszar takes months to achieve. She believes those shortcuts do a disservice to vinegar. “When you take shortcuts, you also short yourself on flavor, not giving our fermenting friends the time to do their work,” the Häxan website reads.
Instead, Huszar takes something like the Washington-grown merlot she sources from local winemakers and pours it into 25- or 55-gallon plastic wine barrels. She’ll add a little finished vinegar or vinegar culture and then pop a lid on top, checking back weekly to monitor the process.
“The flavors change week to week, and you can tell when it’s starting to get vinegary. The vinegar gives off heat as it ferments and, in the summer, when we open up the barrels, it feels like you’re going into a sauna,” she says.
Her finished product has a depth of flavor, a fruity finish and a few of those tannins — that flavor that makes you want to pucker — still kicking around.
Huszar makes vinegar from merlot, rose and riesling, as well as a blackberry balsamic-ish (so named because traditional balsamic ages for 12 years, while hers ages only for one), sake and apple cider. Additionally, she makes a line of vinegars made from basil, rhubarb and carrot cider. These aren’t wine-based vinegars infused with flavors; instead — for the basil vinegar, for example — Huszar uses pounds and pounds of organic basil, adding in wine yeast, sugar, water and vinegar culture, essentially making a basil wine and waiting months as it slowly turns to vinegar.
“It’s not a lot of physical work; it’s just patience,” she says.
Huszar debuted Häxan Ferments in 2018 with a line of fermented hot sauces, but she had been making vinegar at home for years. There aren’t a lot of people making vinegar on this small of a scale — she’s one of the only producers in Washington — so it took a while to make sure she was in line with health department regulations. She began selling her vinegars in 2020. The Washington Merlot vinegar was a finalist in the 2021 and 2022 Good Food Awards, a competition that recognizes “outstanding American craft food producers.”
You can use these vinegars to elevate almost any dish.
“Acidity is a really important building block for food or flavor, and I don’t think as a home cook I’d recognize that enough,” Huszar says.
Yes, great vinegar can elevate even the humblest green salad — but it also can add a punch to soup, stews, beverages and even desserts.
“I really like it in desserts, like a pie filling or a crumble; just adding a splash makes the flavor a lot richer,” she says.
Take Huszar’s recipe for blueberry merlot bars, which feature a buttery, shortbreadlike crust topped with a luscious deep-purple blueberry curd. There’s ¼ cup of vinegar in the curd — but the vinegar doesn’t immediately announce itself in the finished product. Instead, the vinegar amps up the blueberry flavor, making it more pronounced. There is a hint of vinegar at the end, but it’s something that makes you curious as to just what flavor it is — which only gets you back for another blueberry merlot bar.
If vinegar in your pie doesn’t sound appealing, Huszar suggests starting to expand your vinegar horizons with a switchel. A drink popular with 17th-century American farmers in hot summer months, a switchel combines 2 tablespoons of honey and vinegar with 1 tablespoon of fresh grated ginger and 1 cup of water. After refrigerating it for at least an hour, pour the mixture over ice, and top with seltzer water.
“I like to muddle fresh fruit in the glass and will sometimes use iced tea instead of water. My favorite variation is basil vinegar with green tea and strawberries,” Huszar says.
Summer Blueberry Merlot Bars
¼ cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon lime zest (totally optional but nice!)
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup flour
2 cups blueberries
¼ cup Merlot Red Wine Vinegar
1 cup sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line an 8×8-inch pan with parchment.
2. In a food processor, pulse sugar, salt and zest until blended. Cut butter into chunks, and add to food processor bowl. Pulse until butter is evenly distributed and in pea-size pieces. Add flour, and pulse until combined. The mixture will be crumbly.
3. Press dough into prepared pan, going up ½ inch on the sides of the pan.
4. Bake for 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Let cool. Leave the oven on.
5. While the base is baking, start the curd. Add blueberries, 2 tablespoons vinegar and ½ cup sugar to a pan. Bring to a low simmer, and cook until the berries start to pop and mixture is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.
6. Push fruit through a fine mesh sieve to remove skins. Let puree cool until just slightly warm.
7. Return puree to pan. Add remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar. Taste, and add sugar by the tablespoon until desired sweetness is reached.
8. On low heat, add eggs and yolks to puree, whisking to combine. Cook until mixture is thickened.
9. Off heat, add butter by the tablespoon, and stir until completely melted.
10. Strain curd through fine mesh strainer.
11. Pour curd into crust. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees F. Bars are done when the curd is darker, jiggles only slightly, and touching it leaves a light indent.
12. Let cool, and slice into squares.
—from Jessica Huszar