By Leslie Bilderback 03/01/2010
The one thing I can grow is potted herbs. And it’s such a personal triumph that I feel it necessary to preserve their flavor for as long as possible, if only to prove that they ever existed at all. Infused oils and vinegars are a great way to add the flavor of herbs to your everyday cooking. Don’t limit their use to your salad bowl. Use them for roasted and grilled vegetables, meats and fruits, slow-cooked legumes, marinades and dips. You can use any combination of herbs and/or spices in your infusions.
Everything the oils and vinegars come into contact with needs to be impeccably clean, including the herbs. To be sure no bacteria are present, give the herbs a quick dip in a sanitizing solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach dissolved in 6 cups water. Dip the herbs in it and then rinse them in cold running water. (Diluting and rinsing makes this perfectly safe.) Dry them completely before adding to oils.
It’s easiest to make your infusions in wide-mouth canning jars first, then strain them into pretty bottles. Jars, bottles, lids and corks must all be sanitized before you begin. The easiest way to do this is to run them through a dishwasher. You can also boil them for 10 minutes, remove with tongs and drain and cool on clean towels.
Flavored oils and vinegars are often seen gracing the counters of well-groomed kitchens and gourmet shops. But it takes more than a decorative sprig to get flavorful infusions. For both oils and vinegars, herbs should be chopped fine, bruised to release the oils, then packed tightly into glass jars and filled at least three-quarters of the way to the top.
For vinegar infusions, white wine vinegar is a good choice, as is rice vinegar. Cider vinegar can work, too, if the spices and herbs are potent. Distilled white, red wine and balsamic vinegars are too strong; their flavors will compete with your infusions. Bring the vinegar to a simmer, then pour it into sanitized jars packed with herbs and spices. Cover loosely with cheesecloth or a clean towel and, when completely cool, seal with a sterilized lid and set in a cool dark spot for 2 to 4 weeks. When you think it’s ready, strain out the herbs and taste it. If it’s not strong enough, repeat the process with a new batch of chopped herbs. Strain finished infusions through a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth to remove cloudiness. Place a few decorative sprigs of clean herbs inside a sanitized bottle, fill with the infused vinegar and seal with a sanitized cork.
Oil infusions are similar to vinegar ones, but herbs must be completely dry and the oil should not be heated. Choose a neutral-flavored oil, such as canola, safflower or vegetable. Olive and nut oils are too strong for infusions, unless you want the taste of olives or nuts to be a part of your flavor blend.
Pour oil into a sanitized jar filled three-quarters full with clean, dry spices and chopped herbs. Seal tightly with a sanitized lid and let it sit in a cool dark spot for 2 weeks. Shake the jar daily to blend the aromatic oils with the base oil. After 2 weeks, taste the oil. If the flavor is lacking, strain the oil into another sterilized jar full of spices and herbs and repeat the process. Finish as with vinegar.
Garden Herb Vinegar Infuse into white wine vinegar 4 parts parsley; 3 parts chives; 2 parts each thyme and tarragon; and 1 part each sage and celery seed.
Chile Spice Vinegar Infuse into cider vinegar 3 parts dried guajillo chiles; 2 parts each coriander and cumin; and 1 part each garlic, thyme, oregano and cumin.
Minted Vinegar Infuse into rice vinegar 2 parts each peppermint, spearmint and wintergreen; 1 part each lemon verbena and anise seed; and 1 part sugar.
Winter Spice Vinegar Infuse into white wine vinegar 2 parts each rosemary and thyme; 1 part each mint, allspice berries, chopped ginger and cardamom; 1 cinnamon stick; 3 cloves; and ¼ vanilla bean.
Eastern Vinegar Infuse into rice vinegar 3 parts each kaffir lime leaves, cilantro and scallion; 2 parts toasted sesame seed; and 1 part each chopped garlic, chopped ginger, star anise and Szechwan peppercorns.
Fruit Vinegar Infuse into white wine vinegar 3 parts raspberries; 1 part each opal basil, lemon verbena and lemon thyme; and 1 cinnamon stick.
Herbaceous Olive Oil Infuse into olive oil 2 parts each rosemary, basil and sage; 1 part each chopped garlic, fennel seed and
basil; and 1 pequin chile.
Spicy Barbecue Oil Infuse into peanut oil 2 parts each oregano, thyme and cilantro; 1 part each cumin, coriander, chile de arbol, kaffir lime leaves, brown sugar, garlic and mustard seed; and 1 cinnamon stick.
Savory Oil for Seafood Infuse into corn oil 2 parts each bay leaves and celery seeds; 1 part each cardamom, allspice and chopped ginger; 1 vanilla bean; and 1 cinnamon stick.
Lemon Pepper Oil Infuse into corn oil 3 parts lemongrass and 1 part each pink peppercorns, Szechwan peppercorns and chopped ginger.
Annatto Oil Infuse into safflower oil 1 part each annatto seed and garlic, sautéed in an equal amount of safflower oil until warmed and then cooled completely; and 1 part each bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and black pepper.
Caribbean Oil Infuse into vegetable oil 2 parts each juniper berries, cilantro and thyme; 1 part each chopped garlic and chopped ginger; 1 Scotch bonnet chile; and 1 cinnamon stick.