What I Learned from the Yeasts

A Note from Your Host, Bobbie Lewis: Today’s post is by guest blogger Louis “Eli” Finkelman, a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer in the Detroit area. He is also a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home. He previously wrote about his father’s rumtopf and making pickles.

I wanted a recipe that includes white wine vinegar to go with this story. The recipe for Crispy Cauliflower with White Wine Vinaigrette comes from a fairly new cookbook, Balaboosta, by Einat Admony. Balaboosta is Yiddish for housewife, but it has the connotation of a woman who keeps an immaculate home and is an excellent cook. To call someone “a real balaboosta” is high praise! The author called it “Cauliflower Everyone Will Love,” and she spoke the truth! I don’t love cauliflower, but this recipe was a hit at a company dinner where the guests included four children; in fact it was the only one of many dishes that was devoured completely.


Late in the summer of 2010, I happened to gain possession of a few ounces of not-very-appetizing grape juice.  Give me a while to get around to telling you how that happened.  For the moment, let it suffice that it took some effort to get the juice.

I had a bit more than I needed, and I did not feel like just throwing that extra juice out. So I kept it in a Mason jar. Someday, I thought, I might think of what to do with this; until then, I can keep it someplace in my closet, where it won’t get in my wife’s way.

A few weeks later, I had another few ounces of fresh grape juice, and nothing to do with it. By now, however, I had a plan. I added it to the juice in the Mason jar in my closet, where no one would notice a bit more juice.

Yeasts at work

A few weeks later, I remembered to loosen the cover of the Mason jar. Grape juice ferments, even if you do not add yeast. Wild yeast will grow in grape juice, and, as the juice ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. If I had not remembered to release the pressure, the Mason jar in my closet might have exploded. A few weeks later, I tightened the cover. Yeasts do not need oxygen to work. Who knows, I thought, maybe the grape juice would turn into wine.

I must have gone though this cycle of loosening the cover and tightening the cover a few times. Eventually, I forgot all about the jar of grape juice in my closet. During the next three years, the jar just sat in my dark closet, undisturbed and unloved. It waited there.

This might be the right time to tell the story of how I got the juice in the first place.

Recreating medieval recipes

My wife likes to reconstruct medieval recipes from Europe and the Middle East. Many of these recipes call for the juice of unripe grapes, called verjus, and we had no supply of verjus. That summer, our neighbor offered us the grapes that grow in her yard, but said, “do not plan to pick them just yet; they’re not quite ripe.”

With our neighbor’s permission, we dashed over and picked a load of unripe grapes.

Pressing unripe grapes takes more effort than pressing ripe grapes because they are not as juicy.  When we had pressed the grapes, we felt tired of the whole project, but we had a pitcher of verjus. We poured it into little freezer containers, ready for the next medieval reconstruction recipe.

The green verjus in the top of the pitcher looked somewhat clear and attractive; it had a sharp, sour taste, just as the medieval cooks said it would.

Using the dregs

When we had filled all the containers, a few ounces of muddy-looking unripe grape juice from the bottom of the pitcher remained. I did want to throw that out, but it looked too ugly to use. So I put it in my Mason jar.

A few months later, when local grapes ripened, my wife and I picked enough grapes to put up a year’s supply of wine in our fermenter. After we had filled our fermenter, we still had a few cups of grape juice, the muddiest grape juice from near the bottom of the pail. I could have thrown that out, but I did not want to. Instead, it went into the Mason jar in my closet.

And it stayed there, more or less undisturbed, for three years.

I finally paid attention to the Mason jar again this summer. The bottom of the jar held a layer of repulsive brown opaque stuff, and the top had a few fragments of whatever, but in between was a perfectly clear, yellow liquid; it looked like a delicate white wine. I had a wine bottle ready to store that middle liquid.

I loosened the cover of the Mason jar, and smelled the heady aroma. I thought I recognized that bouquet. Then, bravely, I sipped a bit of the liquid.

No doubt about it.

An unanticipated treasure

It was vinegar.  I had a wine bottle filled with delicious, delicate, lovely, white wine vinegar.

When my wife had a chance to smell it, she agreed. A few days later, when we had emptied a vinegar bottle and relabeled it as homemade wine vinegar, we filled it with the new wine vinegar.

That gave me an idea. I threw out the muddy dregs from the bottom of the Mason jar, and put just a few ounces of the clear wine vinegar back into the jar. Then, after an evening of celebration, the last few ounces from a nearly empty wine bottle went into the Mason jar.

When I bottled this year’s wine, at the bottom of the fermenter I found a few ounces of imperfectly clarified white wine. That went straight into the Mason jar, too. If all goes well, I should have more homemade vinegar one of these weeks.  I may have learned how to make vinegar at home.

The moral of this story

So what else have I learned from this experience?  Only this: While I was not paying attention, unseen forces were busy at work, patiently turning my muddy remnants of grape juice into clear, delicious vinegar.

I did not need to direct the project.  I did not need a recipe. I did not need the illusion that I could control the process. I just needed to set up conditions where the unseen forces could work their magic, and then, patiently, let them be.

We had the word “yeast” long before Louis Pasteur discovered that yeasts are little living creatures, hard at work turning sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. “Yeast” meant the froth on top of the fermenter. Vintners, brewers and bakers knew that the froth helped the invisible forces ferment their wine and beer and raise their bread.

Vintners, brewers and bakers knew how to treat these unseen forces to let them work. Pasteur discovered why we cannot see them–because the living creatures are so tiny.

The invisible forces that turn wine into vinegar also have a name, a wonderful  one: “mother of vinegar.” Like yeast, “mother of vinegar” turns out to be a different bunch of Pasteur’s little creatures, hard at work making a product that we value, so long as we let them be.

Here’s the moral of the story:  If I pretend that I have control, and can get to a certain goal directly, I often fail. If I let the right conditions obtain, and have patience to let them be, sometimes humble tiny unseen forces, undisturbed and diligent, bring about the change I desire.

Sometimes the change they bring is not the wine we expect, but vinegar we can use–if we have the courage to taste it and the wisdom to recognize it when it appears.