Sour medicine: We’ve been healing our bodies with vinegar for thousands of years

Plus medicinal vinegar perfume. Yes, really.

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Sour medicine: We’ve been healing our bodies with vinegar for thousands of years

This month, as I begin book edits re-engage with fermentation history, my mind has turned again to how infused ferments have been so critical to human health.

Their impact isn’t geographically limited, either: Vinegar appears across traditional medical systems including Humoral medicine, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Across these systems, balance, both of the body itself (which varies by individual) and of what goes into the body is critical, and so food as medicine is intrinsically tied to many traditional medical practices. Sourness is not just a flavor profile, it also is seen as having physiological and sometimes also energetic balancing properties: Hence why we get combinations like lemon and fish or pork with vinegar (hello, North Carolina BBQ).

Vinegar has been used for a whole bevy of health reasons over the years, from helping with fevers to allaying thirst to reducing external inflammation. In the modern US, apple cider vinegar gets regular airtime as a health promoting food but in truth, health benefits can come from all kinds of vinegars: Though the most healthy are raw (unpasteurized) vinegars, and those made from fruit juices and mashes or other whole food sources, which thus include nutrients from the food (apples, grapes, etc.) as well as those added during fermentation.

Sour vinegar was part of a balancing act, but food for health didn’t stop there: Our ancestors have long understood that we can use food as medicine by making infusions (like tea, infused vinegars, tinctures, etc.) And so, in many cultures, we also see infused vinegars as a part of traditional cuisines: A way to bring in medicinals to the diet along with flavor.

Some sour etymology: According to this chapter on Vinegars through the Ages, The word vinegar has been part of the English lexicon since the 14th century, a direct descendent of the French vin aigre (sour wine), itself a descendent of the Latin vinum acre (sour wine) or vinum acetum (wine vinegar). Vinegar’s tart bite was on the lips of many across the ancient world: The word acetum is derived from acere (to become pungent or go sour) and is also quite similar to the ancient Greek word for vinegar, which translated to ‘sharp or pungent.’ In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for vinegar was ko-metz (or chomets/hometz), which means pungent or fermented.

In all these cases, vinegar’s verbiage is all around sourness, pungency, and acidity: That strong flavor has long been its defining feature. And this is true of its medicinal terminology as well: called acetum or sometimes acitum, vinegar used medicinally is used with consideration of flavor and physiological effects, hearkening back to those traditional medical practices.

The vinegars, and vinegar-based medicines, that people made were heavily informed by their environments. In winegrowing France, wine vinegars became popular, while in more grain-heavy England malt vinegars were common. These vinegars are folded into many traditional dishes, or served alongside them (like fish and chips), serving up a bit of balance.

The medicinal plants in use, too, were location-specific, and have shifted over time as trade and trends shape what is available to us. Four thieves vinegar is one such example: According to legend, it got its name from four French thieves, whose regular regimen of drinking herb-infused vinegar protected them from the Black Plague. Thanks to the vinegar, the four could go around stealing from hapless Plague victims, while never succumbing to the disease itself.

While they did not catch the disease, they were eventually caught by the law, and handed over the legendary recipe in exchange for their freedom.

Indeed, four thieves and similar vinegars have been used by physicians through much of history to ward off illness or reduce the severity of symptoms. A modern descendent of four thieves is fire cider, whose New England colonial roots resulted in a spicier infused vinegar, thanks to hot peppers native to the Americas.

As our herbal pharmacy is now global in scope, herbalists have access to all kinds of healing ingredients that we didn’t previously. As a result, many modern infused medicinal vinegars combine herbs and spices from across these different traditions, like apple cider vinegar, with its European roots, along with tulsi and ginger from farther east and south.

Springtime vinegar: A mineral-rich herbal remedy

The combination of traditional herbal practices with modern scientific research has shown us that the menstruum (or infusing liquid) you use will have an impact on your final herbal remedy. Alcohol, for example, is great for extracting plant resins, while a pot of tea is great for fiber and mucilage.

Vinegar, however, is your best choice for extracting minerals, making it a wonderful springtime nutritional ally.

As our bodies crave the abundance of spring greens, we can give ourselves an extra little mineral kick (and flavor kick, too) by working herbal vinegars into our diets.

The possibilities are as vast as the flavors of the vinegars themselves: woody rosemary and thyme lend depth and earthiness, while bright, sunny chickweed adds bright, almost apple-y flavor. I always have a few of these on hand for dressings and marinades, but also to add to soups and stocks (the acidity in vinegar helps break down the collagen in chicken and other carcasses, making for a richer stock). Try stirring some into a drink or using it as the basis of a shrub (I’ll be sending the recipe for those later this month).

To make it:

Use whatever green herbs you have available (I rely on sustainably harvested wild greens from my yard, like chickweed and violet, which have a high mineral content). Greens like spinach work here too, but this is the place for dark greens, not watery ones like romaine.
Watery greens have a lower mineral content and can also disrupt the water content (and thus acidity) of your vinegar, introducing the possibility of mold growth.

Pack your greens into a jar, add your desired vinegar until the greens are completely covered (I often use apple cider vinegar, but others use white distilled or even balsamic), and allow it to sit out of direct sunlight for 2-4 weeks.
Make sure that your greens stay completely submerged in the vinegar, and check it regularly for signs of spoiling (like mold).
Once it’s ready, strain your herbs out, and give them a good, hearty squeeze so all their mineral-y goodness goes into your vinegar rather than your compost.
For a longer shelf life, store your herbal vinegars in the fridge.

Four thieves vinegar

One of the beautiful things about infused vinegars is their diversity. Just as with the springtime vinegar, four thieves vinegar can be adapted to whatever plants you want. It is, however, traditionally made with herbs (not so much spices), and usually a blend of sweet herbs like mint with earthy ones like thyme or rosemary.
Sage also makes a regular appearance, and sometimes bitter herbs (like wormwood or mugwort) do as well. You can experiment to determine which you like the most. I’m currently working on a four thieves vinegar collaboration using some of these same herbs (along with some others) that I look forward to sharing with you.

Four thieves vinegar is traditionally made with white wine vinegar, however, if you don’t have it (or don’t like it) feel free to experiment with others.

To make four thieves vinegar, let your herbs steep completely submerged under white wine vinegar for 2-4 weeks, then strain, squeeze out the herbs into your vinegar, and store in bottles, just as you did with your springtime vinegar.

So how much of each herb should you use?

This also varies considerably between people’s recipes, but here is the formula I use with fresh herbs:

For each ¼ c of fresh herbs, I use 1 cup of vinegar.

For particularly overpowering or bitter herbs (like tulsi or wormwood) I will use half of what I use for other herbs (in this case, that would be 1/8 c or 2 tbsp of fresh herb per cup of vinegar).

Herbs on their stems don’t fit neatly in a measuring cup, and so some guesstimating is in order for stem-on herbs. Trust me, this is fine!

Note that this recipe uses fresh herbs. If you’re using dried, cut all these measurements in half.

Here’s an example using the ratios above:

¼ c mint

¼ c rosemary

1/8 c sage

1/8 c wormwood

4 c white wine vinegar

As with the recipe above, pack your herbs in a jar and pour vinegar over to cover. Allow to steep, out of direct sunlight, for 2-4 weeks, checking regularly for spoilage and that the herbs are still submerged.
Strain, squeezing as much vinegar from the herbs as you can.
For the longest shelf life, store in the fridge.


You can use the vinegar for a ton of culinary applications, but don’t stop there. The recipe below was developed by the French chemist and scholar René-Maurice Gattefossé, who worked as a perfumer and is considered the father of aromatherapy. This recipe is from his 1937 aromatherapy book:

Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of champhor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.