Preserving Herbs & Spices with Infused Vinegars

Part 5 of the Series, Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest

 

Series HeaderPlease note: This instructional is from the most current information put out by the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation. It has therefore been tested for the safest way to make these infused vinegars. I urge you to follow all the instructions and precautions that are given here for the safety of yourself AND your loved ones.

Flavored vinegars garnished with sprigs of herbs, spices, flowers, or berries add excitement to special dishes with their tantalizing flavors. Infused vinegars are affordable, creative, and tasty selections for gift-giving. With so many holidays coming up over the next few months, you may want to consider whipping up one of these tart and tangy brews for your nearest and dearest. They’re also incredibly handy as last minute “I need a gift, now!” items, for occasions like house-warming parties or host/hostess gifts. A bit of twine, raffia or ribbon and a tag are all that’s needed to dress up your infused vinegars.

Flavored vinegars are easy to make and they require no specialized equipment. The ingredients are probably already in your pantry for the most part. AND it’s fun! Because vinegar is high in acid, it does not support the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria. However, some vinegar products (see list) may support the growth of Escherichia coli bacteria so I cannot stress how important it is to follow directions carefully.

As long as clean and high-quality ingredients are used, the greatest concern with homemade flavored vinegars should be the development of mold or yeast. If your flavored vinegar starts to mold at any time, or to show signs of fermentation such as bubbling, cloudiness or sliminess, do not use it. Safely discard the product.

Some harmful bacteria may survive and even multiply slowly in some vinegars. Store flavored vinegars in the refrigerator, and work in a very clean area with sanitary utensils. Also, be sure your hands are clean while you work!

Equipment

The number one, most important thing to remember when making herb-infused vinegars is this: do not use any reactive metal bowls, utensils, or containers when prepping and storing your vinegar. Aluminum and copper are the most common reactive metals. Vinegar corrodes reactive metals, so only use non-reactive containers and utensils (stainless steel, enamel, glass, wood, plastic). If you store your vinegar in a Mason jar with a metal lid while it’s macerating, be sure to place a piece of wax paper over the mouth of the jar before capping it. Many people choose to use plastic lids on their Mason jars, but I find that they don’t usually get as good of a seal and tend to leak when I shake the jars during maceration.

Aside from that one important caution, your supply list is easy: vinegar, fresh or dried herbs, a cutting board and knife for chopping fresh herbs, measuring cups, a sterilized container with a lid, a wooden chopstick or bamboo skewer, wax paper (if needed for separation between lids and vinegar), masking tape, and a sharpie. For straining and bottling, you will need a fresh sterilized container with a lid, a stainless steel or nylon mesh strainer, a glass bowl, a piece of muslin or cheesecloth, and a fresh label.

Glass Containers

Select and prepare containers first. Use only glass jars or bottles that are free of cracks or nicks and can be sealed with a screw-band lid, cap, or cork. Wash hands well before starting any food preparation work.

Wash containers thoroughly in warm, soapy water and rinse well. A good bottle brush is a big help for narrow containers. Then sterilize the clean, warm jars or bottles by completely immersing them in water and boiling for 10 minutes. DO NOT skip this step! Prepare the sterilizing bath before you wash the jars, or keep the clean jars in warm water until you are ready to put them in for sterilizing.

The best way to prevent breakage while sterilizing jars is to use a deep pot with a rack in the bottom, such as a boiling water canner. Fill the canner or pot at least half full with warm water. Place the empty, warm jars or bottles upright on the rack and make sure the water level is 1 to 2 inches above the tops of the jars. Bring the water to a boil, and continue boiling for 10 minutes. The jars should stay below the boiling water the entire time.

After 10 minutes of boiling, remove the jars or bottles from the water and invert on a clean towel. Use canning jar lifters or tongs that grab the containers without slipping. Have the ingredients at hand because you will fill the jars with prepared vinegar while they are still warm. When working with any glass for cooking, you need to introduce your container to an environment that is equal to thee heat of the jar and its contents. NEVER put a cold jar in boiling water. Damage will occur, even if it is undetectable to the naked eye, in the form of thermal shock (damage due to rapid, uneven temperature changes).

Lids and Caps

One Piece Screw Caps. If using screw caps, wash in hot soapy water, rinse and scald in boiling water. (To scald, follow manufacturer’s directions, or place caps in a saucepan of warm water, heat to just below boiling and then remove from the heat source. Leave caps in the hot water until ready to use.) Use non-corrodible metal or plastic screw caps. Plastic storage screw caps that are made for canning jars are also now available and would work well for flavored vinegars.

Corks. If you are using corks, select new, pre-sterilized corks. Use tongs to dip corks in and out of boiling water 3-4 times just to make sure your corks are free from any dust or debris that may have gotten into the nooks and crannies.

Two Piece Canning Jar Lids. Prepare two-piece metal home canning jar lids according to manufacturer’s directions for canning. If using these lids, allow enough headspace between the lid and the vinegar so that there is no contact between them. Food acids (in vinegar, fruit juices, wine, etc.) combine chemically with metals (especially iron and copper) to form undesired compounds. If you’ve ever slow-cooked tomato sauce in a cast iron pot, you’ve seen the very dark-colored results. Changes in taste can also occur.

Ingredients

Herbs and Spices

From a culinary perspective, nearly any herb can be used to make an herb-infused vinegar. Some popular options are garlic, rosemary, oregano, thyme, hot peppers, tarragon, dill, and basil.

The great thing about herb-infused vinegars is that they’re easily adapted to the ingredients on hand. They can be made with either fresh or dried herbs, or even a combination of both. Fresh herbs tend to give the vinegar a lighter, more delicate flavor while dried herbs impart a stronger, deeper flavor. You can make an herb-infused vinegar with just one herb, or mix and match and infuse multiple herbs in the same batch.

Commercial companies that make herbal vinegars dip the herbs in antibacterial agents not readily available to consumers. As an alternative, briefly dip the fresh herbs in a sanitizing bleach-water solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach (no additives) per 6 cups (1-1/2 quarts) of water, rinse thoroughly under cold water, and pat dry.

For best results, use only the best leaves, seeds, roots, and flowers. Discard any brown, discolored, trampled or nibbled parts of the herbs. Fresh herbs are best picked just after the morning dew has dried. Allow three to four sprigs of fresh herbs or 3 tablespoons dried herbs per pint of vinegar. Spices such as peppercorns and mustard seed are also popular in flavored vinegars after gently squeezing to break the husk. Roots best impart their flavors when grated into the vinegar with a microplane or similar grater.

Fruit and Vegetables

Fruits often used to flavor vinegars include strawberries, raspberries, pears, peaches and the peel of oranges or lemons. Allow the peel of one orange or lemon or 1 to 2 cups of fruit per pint of vinegar you are flavoring. For variation, try fruits in combination with herbs or spices.

Vegetables, such as fresh garlic cloves and jalapeno peppers, can also be used to add zest to vinegars. Thread these on thin bamboo skewers for easy insertion and removal.

Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables with a clean water-vinegar solution and peel, if necessary, before use. Small fruits and vegetables may be halved or left whole; large ones may need to be sliced or cubed.

Vinegar Selection

The type of vinegar to use as the base depends on what is being added (with 5% acidity listed on the label). Fruits blend well with apple cider vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is clear in color and best with delicate herbs. Red and white wine vinegars work well with garlic and tarragon. Do be aware, however, that wine and rice vinegars contain protein that provides an excellent medium for bacterial growth, if not stored properly.

Several types of vinegar may be used, but not all give the same results.

  • Distilled white vinegar is clear in color and has a sharp acidic taste by itself. It is the best choice for delicately flavored herbs.
  • Apple cider vinegar has a milder taste than distilled white vinegar but the amber color may not be desirable. Apple cider vinegar blends best with fruits.
  • Wine and champagne vinegars are generally more expensive than distilled and cider vinegars, but are more delicate in flavor. White wine and champagne vinegars work well with delicate herbs and lighter-flavored fruits. Red wine vinegars would work well with spices and strong herbs like rosemary, but will mask the flavor of most herbs. My personal favorite for infused vinegars is a high-quality 5% white wine vinegar (important), one with minimal levels of ethyl acetate, the compound that shows up in lesser-quality vinegars. (You can tell if it’s in there by the strong characteristic smell of nail polish remover.) My favorite brand is Napa Valley Naturals Organic White Wine Vinegar.
  • Rice vinegar is a mild, slightly sweet vinegar used occasionally for flavoring. Be aware that wine and rice vinegars contain some protein that provides an excellent medium for bacterial growth, if not handled and stored properly.
  • Balsamic vinegar adds a wonderful flavor to some herbs but should only be used in infusions of short-term use as they will mold quickly if left too long.

For added safety, use only commercially produced vinegars.

General Ratios

Here are some general ratios to get you started:

  • 1 cup  or 3 to 4 sprigs of fresh herbs to 2 cups vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons of dried herbs to 2 cups vinegar
  • Peel of one lemon, lime or orange to 2 cups vinegar
  • 1-2 cups of fruit to 2 cups of vinegar
  • 2-4 tablespoons of spices/seeds to 2 cups vinegar

Preparation

To make flavored vinegars, place the prepared herbs, fruits or spices in the sterilized jars, being careful to avoid over-packing the bottles. Use three to four sprigs of fresh herbs, 3 tablespoons of dried herbs or 1 to 2 cups of fruit or vegetables per pint of vinegar to be flavored. Heat vinegar to just below boiling (190F), then pour over the herbs and cap tightly. Allow to stand for three to four weeks in a cool, dark place for the flavor to develop fully. Then, strain the vinegar through a damp cheesecloth or coffee filter one or more times until the vinegar is no longer cloudy. Discard the fruit, vegetables or herbs. Pour the strained vinegar into a clean sterilized jar. Add a sprig or two of fresh herbs or berries that have been sanitized as described above. Seal tightly. Store in the refrigerator for best flavor retention.

The flavoring process can be shortened by a week or so by bruising or coarsely chopping the herbs and fruits before placing in the bottles and adding the hot vinegar. To test for flavor development, place a few drops of the flavored vinegar on some white bread and taste. When the flavor is appropriate, strain the ingredients one or more times through a damp cheesecloth or coffee filter. Pour the strained vinegar into a clean sterilized jar. Add a sprig or two of fresh herbs that have been sanitized as described above. Seal tightly. Store in the refrigerator for best flavor retention. Don’t forget to label your bottle(s)!

The process is quick and easy once you have mastered the “rules” of safe preparation.

  1. Wash and sterilize jars and lids (see GLASS CONTAINERS section).
  2. Wash and dry produce (see details in appropriate sections).
  3. Place produce in jar using a bamboo skewer to push it down if needed.
  4. Heat vinegar (the heated vinegar will bring out the flavor in the produce). (See PREPARATION section, paragraph 1.)
  5. Pour vinegar on top of produce.
  6. Seal jar and store in cool, dark place for 2-4 weeks, shaking occasionally.
  7. Taste vinegar starting at week 2.  Pour a bit of vinegar on a piece of bread – how does it taste?
  8. When you’ve reached the desired flavor, strain out herbs using strainer, coffee filter, or cheese cloth.
  9. Pour vinegar into clean, sterilized bottles.
  10. Add a fresh herb or piece of fruit for decorative purposes.  Seal well and label.
  11. If you are giving as a gift, label, and decorate providing suggestions for use.

Storage and Use

For the best retention of flavors, store flavored vinegars in the refrigerator or a cool dark place. If properly prepared, flavored vinegars should retain good quality for two to three months in cool room storage and for six to eight months in refrigerated storage. If you notice any signs of mold or fermentation (such as bubbling, cloudiness or sliminess) in your flavored vinegar, throw it away without tasting or using for any purpose.

Some people enjoy displaying pretty bottles of herb and fruit vinegars on a kitchen window sill. If left out for more than a few weeks, these bottles should be considered as decoration and not used in food preparation.

Flavored vinegars can be used in any recipe that calls for plain vinegar. They add zest to marinades for meats and fish and interesting flavors to dressings for salads, pastas and vegetables.

  • Herb vinegar can be used in cooking in equal amounts where wine, fruit juice, plain vinegar, lemon, or lime juice is called for.
  • Add it to bottled barbecue sauce.
  • Use it in a homemade mustard recipe.
  • Make a basting brush by tying 3 or 4 six-inch pieces of rosemary together at the top with cotton string.
  • Use it in your favorite vinaigrette dressing or marinade (one part vinegar to two or three parts olive oil, salt and pepper to taste).

References

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Service (2014):  http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09340.html

Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences (2012): .http://extension.psu.edu/food/preservation/news/2012/flavored-vinegars

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension:  University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Service: Elizabeth L. Andress, Ph.D., and Judy A. Harrison, Ph.D., Extension Foods Specialists. http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uga/uga_flavored_vinegars.pdf

Part 6 Section Footer

Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest, an 8 Part Series
To see the other articles in the series, click on the links:

Part 1, Harvesting, Preparing, and Seeding Herbs & Spices
Part 2, Freezing Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 3, Drying Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 4, Extracts/Tinctures from Herbs & Spices
Part 6, Making Teas from Herbs and Spices
Part 7, Herbal Infused Honey
Part 8, Making SAFE Herbal Infused Oils