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…vinegar…

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Whether or not I actually ever finish working on my cookbook remains to be seen. It’s become a bit like curing a prosciutto style ham; they take years, and the longer they sit and hang, the better they become. There are many aspects of it that make me happy I’ve been trying, at any rate.

Like so many things you jump into without really knowing, you learn more about yourself along the way as you’re trying to share something different with the rest of the world. It confirms the way I work naturally, letting ideas gestate for an excruciating amount of time, finally letting them burst out in a flurry of work. I also realize that I don’t really cook in any particular sense, and writing recipes to me seems so after the fact. Anyone can write a recipe, or give you a recipe. There won’t be so many recipes in it, I’m likely realizing. Not this one anyway, maybe the next one. I have many, but they’re mine. What I really want is to give people tools to play in their own kitchens, hunt for things, literally or figuratively, and simply experiment.

I’m a firm believer that life is richest when you have things that are your own. Your own workspace, your own little sphere of some place. A language you share only with a few loved ones; pet names, silly code words, mutual understandings about what’s good and what isn’t. Noises and clicks that call your dog, and only your dog. All of these things are borne of a certain intimacy with each other, and the same thing should be cultivated with cooking. To that end, a recipe I have, a way of doing something is, and rightly should be, largely meaningless to anyone else. Disappointing comes to mind.

What is meaningful is the language of cooking, the understanding of certain elements, the behavior and meaning of things. It’s like teaching someone chords on a piano and letting them make their own music instead of teaching them how to bang out a particular tune. One is for a lifetime of improvisation and person expression. The other becomes tiresome and meaningless after a while.

I’ve always been oriented this way. My favorite book of all time, one which I thumb through almost religiously multiple times a week, is an elephantine unabridged dictionary of the English language, circa 1972. There are no stories there, simply words and definitions. It’s the land where the gyascutus lives, along with the homunculus. Plethora, rife, sebaceous, busby, polemic, gimcrack, rictus, ethereal, anaphylaxis, bunghole; all words that swim around in my spongy brain, waiting to be slipped into some story somewhere to somebody…

Of course words are – or reading the dictionary is – largely meaningless if you don’t intend on trying to tell stories and weave elements in that perk someones imagination, or prompt them to wonder about it. It’s the joy of trivial knowledge. The hope that someday, the treasure hunt of oddities has a medium and a place for expression…

I was pondering vinegar the other day – or more specifically acids in general, and finding that cooking and discovering the elements is as similar to me as listening to someone who’s read a whole other dictionary, and tells a story laden with ideas I don’t know, but want to discover. Little things you stumble across, that lead you down corridors you never knew, that widen your imagination ten-fold each step of the way.

Vinegar comes from a process of fermentation. It’s virtually wine, or (un-hopped) beer, or cider in which the alcohol has oxidized. Acidification is the final step in fermentation. First sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon-dioxide through yeast metabolization. Then alcohol acidifies as it oxidizes. It’s often hastened in its process by acetobacter bacteria – often even available as a ‘mother of vinegar’ you can purchase at home brew shops. But you can make your own, simply by leaving wine or beer in a crock, uncovered, aerating it, then waiting till a whitish slime begins to form on the top, usually a few weeks or even months. Fruit flies, in this case, are your friend. They carry colonies of the acetobacter bacteria on themselves and will help ‘infect’ your project. All one needs to do is keep feeding it more and more and you can have an endless supply of homemade vinegar…

Acid content is directly related to the alcohol content. A 12% alcohol wine, will eventually turn into a 12% acid vinegar, which is far more acidic than one normally gets in a red wine vinegar. Most vinegars are diluted to the 5 or 6% range.

Acid molecules are great carriers of flavors – very similar in structure to fats, which also carry flavors well.

Few things can thrive in acids. It’s one of the reasons why raw egg yolk in mayonnaise isn’t a risk when lemon juice is added. Acids denature proteins. They can be used to tenderize meats and can even ‘cook’ foods chemically. Ceviche comes to mind. Left too long, a loaf of sourdough bread becomes an unworkable gooey mass as the proteins lose the ability to bond to one another. Acids are the hallmark of a really good salami, or other cured meats, where the lactic acids form (fermented meat!) over time and prevent them from rotting and give them their unique tang.

Acids also retard and inhibit Maillard reactions. They keep things from getting brown in the oven, or a hot pan. It’s the reason why sourdough breads never get as golden a crust as you think they should, but it’s also the reason why they never get moldy. The bread I bake is acidic enough that I can keep odd bits of old loaves staling for weeks and months without any mold ever forming, while the store bought hamburger buns have green spots in the span of a week… Conversely, alkali things, such as baking soda, speed up and amplify the Maillard reactions. The key to making a really good pretzel? A dunk in a solution of water and baking soda prior to baking…

Of course another pandora’s box opens with the idea of fermentation alone. The magic of starches broken down into sugars, via malting and mashing in beer making, or chewing up and spitting out corn to make Chicha. It’s amylase at work, found both in the husks of barley, and human saliva. Somewhere along the way, things like this introduce me to the trivial knowledge that dog saliva does not contain amylase. They don’t ‘taste’ a potato like we do, and it won’t begin to break down or digest in them until the pancreas gets to it, well into the intestines… A handy little factoid to keep filed away for use later, I hope… But also equally fascinating is that human saliva does contain this enzyme. We’re meant to eat complex carbohydrates. Our body is designed to begin digesting them from they moment they touch our tongue. It makes me leery of people who look at carbohydrates as some evil that we’re supposed to swear off for our own good.

Of course it’s not just vinegar that’s acidic, there’s all the citrus fruits; lime, orange, lemons, among others, which can be almost equally interchanged with vinegars, especially in the case of making a vinaigrette, a marinade, for pickling something, or keeping an avocado from turning into brownish gray guacamole.

It’s the biggest challenge in this – not the getting distracted by all of the facets and directions that any particular element takes me, because I relish that – but figuring how to format it in a manner that does it all justice and hopefully gives others an appreciation for what it all is…

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