I'm an obsessive person—it's part of my nature—and I've always loved acidity. I remember this one time, I think I was about twenty, where Barbara Lynch from No. 9 Park gave me a capful of vinegar to try. You know every once in awhile if you are lucky, there's that taste that ruins you in the best of ways and leaves a mark on your palate completely and forever? That was that moment for me.
I can't deal with food that's not balanced and what's most often missing is an element is acidity—I know most chefs will agree with that. Obviously a lot of people salt to taste, but acidity opens up a whole new pathway to your palate. I had this realization after tasting that vinegar in Barbara's kitchen, and it took me 15 years to finally make it to Vienna to meet this guy, Erwin Gegenbauer, who actually made that vinegar and changed my flavor profile forever. It got stuck in my head and I just couldn't take it.
Pickles are what get me the most! You have this really amazing produce and then you put it in a really shitty vinegar. White distilled vinegar is the devil.
I don't know if there's a linear way to sum up my career, it's an amalgamation of a lot of things. I pursue my interests and when I notice something and don't understand it right away, I have a really hard time dealing with not understanding it. I've always had this sort of analytical mind. As much as I knew about vinegar—I've been making it at home for a few years—I didn't want to be one of these autodidacts who thinks they know everything. I traveled around the world to meet people who have been doing it for generations if not thousands of years.
A lot of the reason why there is this disconnect between vinegar and, say, wine, is largely cultural. I think the gist is that people don't understand the amount of craft that goes into making vinegar and therefore don't understand the true value of the product. We have such shitty vinegar in the US! I don't mind using the word "shitty" over and over again to describe the vinegar widely available here because it's made of shit stuff. Take a look and you'll find most of it is made with really crappy ethanol, like corn-based spirits that are watered down and don't have anything of inherent value in them. The qualities of health and restorative properties just aren't there. There's no soul. No story!
There's only one vinegar recipe in my book and it's a 10-to-12-page master recipe that's all about controlling simple variables. Mastering the craft of making vinegar isn't necessarily about learning a completely new skill, it's about honing the ones you already have. The foremost ingredients in vinegar are time and patience, that's really it. The complexity comes down to both of those things. You need to have the wherewithal of knowing how to steer and direct that second fermentation—or even the first if you're making that base alcohol—and understanding your own flavor profile and what nuances you want to bring out in the vinegar. It's a very personal journey to make vinegar and the complexity shines through when you realize no two vinegars are going to be the same. It's like wine in the sense that it's about having that terroir, having that expression; I know that's really overused nowadays in talk about singular food products, but I don't think there is a singular way to define what vinegar tastes or feels like or what it should be.
I don't think I could have written a book about vinegar and not included a recipe for how to make it—all the chefs wanting to know how would have thrown it in the trash. Of the people in the book, it's actually a very small percentage who make their own vinegars or even know how to make it. Chefs are the ones who have the capacity to easily make their own vinegar and they influence everyone else, so they are the people I'm hoping will push forward the project of better vinegar in the country, if not the world.
As told to Alex Swerdloff. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Michael Harlan Turkell is an award-winning food photographer and cookbook author. He has photographed many prominent chefs' cookbooks and hosts The Food Seen podcast on Heritage Radio. He is the author of ACID TRIP: Travels in the World of Vinegar and co-authored Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, with Guts alongside Chris Cosentino.