Summer’s harvest is never complete until a few bottles of garlic chili oil are tucked away in the pantry and a handful of spicy golden vinegars grace the windowsill. Both oils and vinegars add a lot of flavor to almost any dish and are ready when you need them as dressings and marinades. Herbed oil is great stir-frying, sautéing or braising meats, tofu and vegetables. Some herbed oils are best made with dry ingredients, while others require the crispness found only in freshly-picked ingredients. So, while the height of summer is still a way off, now is the best time to begin gathering materials and deciding which blends will work best for your style of cooking.
Some of the best herbed oils and vinegars are made using the simplest combinations. Sage, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, mint, lemon balm and dill all make excellent stand-alone products. Add to that a touch of chili pepper, green onion and garlic and you have a masterpiece.
Of course, it is possible to create very complex flavor combinations using exotic spices and other ingredients to flavor vinegar and oil. Cloves, vanilla beans, and flowers such as rose and nasturtium all add their own touch of subtle flavor. Dried fruit such as raisins, dates, figs, apples and nectarines can all be used to create savory-sweet treats. To add a punch of sass to herbed vinegars, try including fresh vegetables such as turnips, horseradish, beets and radishes.
For those who have never made herbed vinegar or oil, begin with simple combinations of two or three herbs and branch out from there. A few examples of simple herb combinations are:
garlic, chili peppers and chives
cilantro, garlic and ginger
lemon balm, mint and cilantro
rosemary and thyme
onion, chili peppers and horseradish
Begin preparing herbed vinegar by picking a type that will blend well with the herbs that have been chosen. Any kind of vinegar will work, but I suggest balsamic, apple cider, red wine, or rice vinegar to start with. All fresh herbs should be clean, free of water and finely chopped. If you like, dry herbs can be sealed inside of a coffee filter tied with cotton string to make filtering the vinegar easier.
Lightly pack the herbs and other ingredients into a glass jar that has a tight-fitting lid. Add enough vinegar to cover all the ingredients by at least 2 in. (5 cm) and run a non-metallic knife or spatula down the sides of the jar to release any air bubbles. Seal the jar tightly with a non-metallic lid. If the only lid available is made of metal, a heavy piece of food-grade plastic or waxed-paper can be laid over the mouth of the jar before the lid is screwed on. Place the jar in a warm, sunny window for up to fourteen days, or in the refrigerator for up to a month before straining. If the herbs float to the surface of the vinegar, lightly shake the jar every day until they don’t.
Once the herbs have steeped, the vinegar should be strained through a double layer of cheesecloth into a clean bowl. Repeat this process as needed to remove all plant residues from the vinegar. Funnel the strained vinegar into a clean bottle and add a few fresh herb sprigs for decoration. Label and store in a cool, dark place.
Herbal oils are prepared in much the same way as herbal vinegars, with a few exceptions. Herbal oils are only infused for one week and they have a greater likelihood of spoiling during infusion. To speed up the infusion of flavors, the oil should be kept at or slightly above room temperature for several hours each day. A sunny windowsill is a good place to infuse oils. If the weather is cold, the oil should be very gently warmed in a double boiler or microwave every few days.
To prevent spoilage, fresh herbs used to make herbed oils should be extremely dry and any that are very succulent should be wilted for twenty-four hours before being added. Before being loosely packed into clean jars, fresh herbs should be chopped or bruised, and dried herbs should be crushed. Then cover the herbs with 2 in. (5 cm) of any edible vegetable oil such as olive, canola, sesame, or peanut and seal the jar tightly with a non-metallic lid. Once the herbs have steeped, the mixture is strained through a double thickness of cheesecloth into a clean jar. The cheesecloth bag is then squeezed to remove any excess oil from the herbs. Repeat this procedure until the oil is free of all debris.
Funnel the strained oil into decorative bottles. Unlike herbal vinegars, fresh sprigs should not be added to the finished product because they will eventually spoil. Most herbal oils do not need to be refrigerated if all traces of plant material and water have been removed.
To make a quick herbed oils or vinegar, try this method: finely chop or crush all ingredients and place them in a microwavable jar or bowl. Cover the herbs with oil or vinegar, and heat in a microwave for ten seconds at a time until hot, but not simmering. Allow the mixture to cool completely. At this point the flavor should be quite nice. If you will not use the product immediately, the mixture may be left on the countertop overnight and strained in the morning or held in the refrigerator for up to one week before straining.
Make the best out of the salad days by readying yourself for the harvest to come. Herbal Oils and vinegars will last long past the first fall frost and bring a punch of flavor to all your homemade dishes.
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