Vinegar Eels, Fruit Flies, and Carnage in the Kitchen

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Straight up, there are no photos this time around.  Some things, once seen cannot be unseen and I didn’t want any photo evidence.

If you recall, back in my first post about the vinegar found here, I mentioned briefly that vinegar had a mother and that I had discovered the existence of a delightful little thing called the vinegar eel.  I elaborated on neither really because just like the immortal words of Henry Winkler in The Waterboy, “What Mama don’t know, won’t hurt her”.  I was blissfully unaware until having learned of them by glancing through some research on fermented vinegar, and the names alone made me decide to leave well enough alone.

Last week, when I went to strain the fruit out of my vinegar I did indeed notice a few, for lack of a kinder word, worms moving around the top of the slurry, hanging out with mother.  I assumed, because ignorance is bliss, that these must have been the vinegar eels I had read about in passing, and went ahead and strained the the whole lot, turfing all moving and unmoving solids into the garbage.  The remaining vinegar went back into a freshly cleaned container with fresh cheesecloth on top and all was well.  It looked good, it smelled good, Bob’s your uncle and we were motoring towards success.

After a few days I took the vinegar off the shelf, congratulated myself on the fact that I had a healthy looking layer of vinegar making mother forming on top, gave it the requisite stir, and placed it back on the shelf for another few days.  I was pretty darn happy.

Since I clearly had decided that I’d mastered the art of vinegar first time out I thought I would dive into a little bit of research on the eels and have something clever and witty to share.  There was a surprising number of search engine hits on a life form I had not know existed the week before and there are a few things really that I need to share with you:

  1. Vinegar eels are actually worms, and they feed on the mother.
  2. All of the vinegar we buy in the grocery store is pasteurized to kill the mother and the eels, and anything else.  You can buy “raw, unfiltered” vinegar in the health food section.  Apple cider vinegar “au naturel” is supposedly good for a host of things ranging from heart burn to dandruff.  I’ll let you do your own research.
  3. Mother and eels are naturally occurring, kind of a chicken or the egg scenario.
  4. Vinegar eels are tiny, tiny little things that live in the vinegar.
  5. Vinegar eels were not what I had seen in my batch.

I had already made peace with the fact that I was fermenting vinegar and it was going to have a living mother as well as eels.  This is after all an experiment and I was trying to do things old school, and old school was a little messy.  The last stage of the recipe called for “stabilization” or what I affectionately call “boiling the crap out of it until everything is dead”, so we were good to go.

But now we had an invader into my pretty little homespun scenario.  I tried to figure out exactly what I had seen.  I did recall seeing a few tiny flies buzzing around, did a few different google searches and discovered that not only was there such a thing as vinegar flies, they were beneficial to the process because they carried the bacteria you needed to start the process.  More chicken and egg stuff.  What I had thought were vinegar eels had actually been “baby” vinegar flies. Note that I’m not ready to discuss this in terms of “worms” let alone the “m” word.

I told myself it was ok, because I had after all filtered the entire works and they were gone, forgotten, a thing of the past, history.  Let’s move on and forget that part, was what I told myself.  My vinegar had been pristine when I had last stirred it, we were good to go.

When I pulled out the vinegar for the next stir, it was simply horrifying.  Forget baby vinegar eels, there was no sugar coating the entire city living and growing on the inside walls of my container.  That’s right, the vinegar flies (which by the way are really fruit flies) had returned and organized a family picnic.  Forget homespun, beneficial, and “au naturel”  I had worms in my vinegar.  A lot.  Ew, ew, ew.

I had been going for a Laura Ingalls experience, but this situation perhaps needed some Lara Croft.  I had committed to this process and I was going to see this through to the bitter end.  Faster than I had moved all day, I put together a quadruple layer of cheesecloth into a strainer and strained the whole works again.  This was a solid departure from the recipe and might possibly ruin the outcome but they absolutely had to go.  I made sure that I had gotten rid of every last one, probably killed a hundred or more.  Probably more.  I don’t want to talk about it.

After reading this I’m pretty sure no one is going to sample this batch, but it’s still a learning experience and learn we will.  I will go through all of the steps and simultaneously start a new batch since peaches are still in season and see if we do better.  Upon reflection I think my errors were two fold:

  1. I didn’t have a rubber band to hold the cheesecloth in place and had used clips to weigh it down.
  2. The cheesecloth I had used was a larger mesh.

Maybe, just maybe, those two things had allowed the fruit flies that had been flying around my bananas to get into the batch, attracted by the rotting fruit smell.  I did happen to have some cheesecloth with much, much tinier holes, and after this I’ll probably go for that, or tea towels, or squares of old, clean pillow cases.

We learn as we go, I’m still very excited  about making vinegar, and next time I hope to have some pictures for you.  Worm free pictures.

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4 comments on “Vinegar Eels, Fruit Flies, and Carnage in the Kitchen”

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