BY EDWARD FORSTER
You season greens with balsamic. Maybe you deglaze mushrooms with sherry. Perhaps you’ve even pickled vegetables with white wine vinegar. Chances are, you’re accustomed to using the vinegar in your pantry and maybe you even own a few spirit-based vinegars, like red wine vinegar or champagne vinegar. But what if you changed your vinegar’s base spirit to beer?
Say you’re making a potato salad for your late summer cookout, which may involve a few wheat-based libations. Why not season your meal with alegar instead?
Alegar is exactly what it sounds like: vinegar made with ale or beer. Vin is French for “wine,” and aigre means “sour,” hence vinegar. Switch out wine for beer and you have alegar. British recipes dating back as far as five hundred years call for alegar, long before wine vinegar was the standard. It’s easy enough to purchase malt vinegar, which is quite similar, but why not brew your own with a beer you are particularly fond of? If you have a locally brewed favorite that is over ten percent alcohol by volume and low in hop character, well, it’s a perfect match. If you’re a home brewing enthusiast and desire another way to share your hard work with friends, then alegar is the answer.
Making your own alegar is simple and creates a unique addition to your cooking arsenal. I use vinegar made with a “mother,” which is easily found in the organic section of your local grocery. Most will be clearly labeled and buyers will easily see a cloudy, wavy solid in the bottom of the bottle. That mother is alive, well, and ready to assist your creative mind, just as a mother should. (Mothers are also found in other areas of cooking, including breadbaking and yogurtmaking.)
When it comes to making alegar, I have had the most success using a lightly fermented beer base and the vinegar mother simultaneously. To proceed, a homebrewer should boil a batch of malts, add stabilizers and yeast, and keep hop levels very low. To a gallon batch of beer, the brewer simply adds the vinegar mother with a bit of its vinegar base (Bragg’s Organic Cider Vinegar in the one-liter size works well for me.) Cover the container with cheesecloth and set the container aside in a cool, dark place. The mother will aid in changing the beer’s sweet malty water into a delectable, sour vinegar base. Full maturation will typically occur within three weeks, but the mixture should be tasted with a clean spoon throughout the process until its flavor pleases. Once the alegar is complete, leave the mother in the finished product—the sugars have been converted, so it will rest in the solution without further changing it.
If beginning with beer purchased at the store, look for beer with a high alcohol content and low hop character. The alcohol level and relative sweetness of Schneider Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock has worked well for me. With notes of raisin, it lends itself well to a variety of foodstuffs. First decant the beer into a large container. You can use a bottle or an entire growler; the mother will transform most any quantity of beer easily. Depending on the beer selected, there may be some residual yeast in the bottom of the bottle, but this will not hurt the finished product. Simply float the mother and a small amount of vinegar into the beer and cover the container with cheesecloth. Set aside in a dark place. The alegar should be ready in approximately three weeks, but taste it throughout the aging process to be sure it meets your personal preferences.
Once the alegar, with its unique flavor profile, is ready, it will add an entirely new dimension to any recipe in which you currently use vinegar. Sliced radishes, cucumbers, and shaved fennel can now be drizzled and enjoyed with a scratchmade alegar vinaigrette. Close a delicous flavor loop by seasoning braised pearl barley with a liquid made with fermented barley. If you’ve used the robust raisiny Aventinus mentioned above to make your alegar, then turn your attention to dessert. Italians have long been known for drizzling syrupy aged balsamic vinegar over vanilla ice cream—substituting a reduction of the Aventinus and some stewed raisins for the balsamic will make you very happy.
Buffalo beer lovers shouldn’t restrict their pantry to wine-based acidulators. Pour yourself a pint of ale and let the creative brewing process run free.