Herbs, fruit, flowers,and flavor
With my ever-expanding herb, edible flower and fruit garden, the choices for flavored vinegars seem to expand exponentially each year. Yet there are some combinations that I continually return to. The proportions within the combinations may vary, depending on my supply, but I keep to my rule of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part herbs and flowers.
Here are some recipes to get you started, but remember that flavoring vinegars is really a matter of personal choice. Refer to the chart at left for more combinations, varying the ingredient proportions to suit your tastes. Jot down the ingredients and amounts that you use in a notebook and compare them in a variety of dishes so that you can repeat your favorites.
One of the joys of growing and using herbs is the connection and continuity it provides. For example, when I pick and use sage, I know that others have cooked with it for thousands of years, to say nothing of using it to promote wisdom, long life, and good health. So, too, is the connection I feel with vinegar. To some, vinegar may be just a sharp-tasting liquid for pickles and salads, but for me, vinegar not only opens history’s doors, but also improves the flavors of many foods and provides a creative outlet for using herbs, spices, fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Herb and flower vinegars soften my skin and hair, offer a safe, all-purpose household cleaner, and make great gifts besides.
Among the oldest foods and medicines known to man, vinegar is one of those provident occurrences without written record of its first appearance. Since vinegar is the next natural step after alcoholic fermentation, no doubt it occurred when someone let wine sit too long. We do know that the earliest written references to wine and vinegar were about 5,000 b.c., with vinegar a commonplace medicine in Babylonia at that time. Over the centuries, vinegar became indispensable as a way to preserve and enhance foods as well as a curative and cosmetic.
Today, vinegar may not be considered essential in daily life, but a trip to the supermarket shows that it still holds great appeal. Even the most modest grocery will have plain distilled, apple cider, and red and white wine vinegars, while gourmet shops will have any number of flavored vinegars, none of which can compare to what herb gardeners have been making for years. Amazingly easy to make, flavored vinegars are often the first project for beginning herb gardeners, yet even seasoned herb gardeners continue to make them because they have merit beyond ease. Redolent with herbs and other flavorings, these vinegars offer an opportunity for creativity both in the making and in the using.
Although making your own vinegar from wine is possible, it isn’t easy even with specialized equipment. Flavoring purchased vinegars, on the other hand, is virtually foolproof.
The first consideration in flavoring vinegar is to decide what type of vinegar to use. The most widely available is distilled white vinegar, and although I’ve tasted excellent flavored vinegars made with distilled vinegar, generally I feel that the flavor is a little harsh. Apple cider vinegar is the second most common. The best of these, usually made from organic apples and fermented in wooden barrels, have a rich, fruity flavor. Check the label to be sure you’re not getting “cider-flavored” vinegar, which is distilled white vinegar with caramel coloring. Cider vinegar is good to use with intensely flavored herbs such as horseradish, hot pepper, dill, garlic, shallots, nasturtium flowers and leaves, and garlic chives as well as spices.
The vinegars I use the most for flavoring are those made from wine. These include white wine, red wine, sherry, balsamic, champagne, and rice wine. My favorites are white and rice wine vinegars as these have a mellow, delicate flavor that showcases herbs, flowers, or fruit. There are actually three distinct types of rice wine vinegars: white, which is commonly found in grocery stores and may be golden in color, as well as red and black rice vinegars, which are usually found in Asian groceries. Vinegars made from red wine, sherry, or the inexpensive balsamic vinegars are best used with the more assertive flavorings such as oregano, garlic, or spices.
To make flavored vinegars cost-effective, I search out sources such as gourmet and health food stores and specialty groceries that sell these vinegars by the gallon.Whatever your source or personal preference, it is most important to use the best vinegar you can afford—vinegar that you like even without flavoring. No amount of flavoring will improve a vinegar that you don’t like.
To flavor vinegars, you’ll need a few basic items. Most will already be in your kitchen. Steeping containers should be made of any nonreactive material such as glass, plastic, porcelain, pottery, or enamel-coated steel. They should have tight-fitting, nonreactive lids. Canning jars can be used if a piece of plastic wrap is placed over the opening before attaching the metal lid. Other handy equipment includes a plastic or wooden spoon, plastic funnel, and glass or plastic measuring cups and spoons. For filtering, you can use cheesecloth, muslin, or coffee filters to line a plastic strainer, colander, or coffee filter holder. After the vinegar is flavored, decant it into attractive bottles. Use plastic, ceramic, or glass caps or new corks, sealing with candle wax, if desired; never use metal.
Cleanliness is essential when making flavored vinegars. Wash all utensils, bottles, and containers with hot, soapy water, then rinse in hot water. A bottle brush often comes in handy.
I hope everyone has a bounty of homegrown, fresh herbs, fruits, and flowers to use in flavoring vinegars. But if not, purchased ones are fine, too. In a pinch, you can even use dried herbs or frozen, unsweetened fruits. If using homegrown herbs, pick them when the flavor is most intense—as early in the morning as possible after the dew has dried. If the herbs need to be washed, rinse them gently in cool water and dry thoroughly with towels. Flavorings should be dry before adding to the vinegar.
If you haven’t been overly impressed with flavored vinegars in the past, most likely that’s because not enough herbs or other flavorings were used. To get an intensely flavored vinegar, use about 1 cup of loosely packed fresh herb leaves or flowers to 2 cups of vinegar. For dried herbs or flowers, use 1/2 cup to 2 cups of vinegar. Choose combinations of herbs, fruits, and flowers from the chart at left, or make up your own. For a vinegar based on spices or herb seeds, use 2 to 4 tablespoons to 2 cups of vinegar. Be sure the flavorings are completely covered by the vinegar so they do not mold.
The length of time the herbs, fruit, and flowers steep in the vinegar is a matter of preference. Sample the vinegar after a week or so. Usually all the flavor will be extracted after three to four weeks. For an especially strong flavor, the process can be repeated, using a new batch of herbs or flowers.
When the flavor is to your liking, strain the vinegar into a nonreactive bowl. Then, using a funnel, pour it into clean glass bottles, filling as full as possible below the cap or cork. If desired, insert sprigs of herbs or flowers or pieces of fruit. Cap and apply labels.
One of the great heresies of which almost everyone is guilty is setting vinegar on a windowsill to steep. Vinegars should be stored in a dark place at cool or room temperatures, as heat and light destroy the flavors.
There are two exceptions to this procedure. When flavoring a vinegar entirely with spices and seeds, the vinegar is warmed to release the essential oils in the flavorings. Simply combine the spices and/or seeds with the vinegar in a stainless or enameled steel saucepan, heat to 110°F, then immediately remove the pan from the heat. Let the mixture cool slightly, then pour into a steeping container. Cover tightly and set in a dark spot at room temperature for at least a week, or until the desired flavor is reached. Strain and bottle. The other variation is with fruit-flavored vinegars, which is explained below.
If I leave a bottle out because I think it looks pretty, I try to use it up quickly. Unopened, herb vinegars last at least two years, with fruit vinegars lasting about a year. Once opened, use fruit vinegars within three months and other flavored vinegars within six months.
The earliest vinegars were actually made from fruit, but today we use fruit as a flavoring. Slightly sweet fruit vinegars offer a pleasing contrast to a salad of mesclun or mixed bitter greens. Or try them in coleslaws or meat salads that include fresh fruit. Grilled or roasted meats marinated or basted with fruit vinegars are great, too. Use fruit vinegars in pies, sorbets, poached fruits, candies, and other sweets. A refreshing summer drink combines a fruit vinegar with sparkling water. Fruit vinegar mixed with boiling water and a spoonful of honey makes a perfect, warming winter drink that also helps soothe a sore throat.
Raspberry is the most popular fruit-flavored vinegar, but just about any fruit, either fresh, dried, or frozen unsweetened, can be used for flavoring. Try blackberries, other bramble fruits, blueberries, cherries, currants, cranberries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and strawberries. These can be combined with herbs and flowers, too.
There are a number of different methods for making fruit-flavored vinegars, but the following technique is the easiest I’ve found. The acidity of the vinegar you use is of particular importance with fruit vinegars; use a vinegar of at least 5 percent acidity to help prevent spoilage.
Put the fruit, either cut up or lightly mashed, and herbs into a steeping container. Add vinegar to completely cover the fruit. Attach the lid tightly and store in a cool, dark place. Stir or shake every couple of days. After one week, strain the mixture into a stainless steel or enameled-steel pan. Add sugar or honey according to your preference: from 1/4 to 1 cup of sugar or from 3 tablespoons to 3/4 cup of honey to 4 cups of vinegar. Stirring frequently, bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes. Do not let the mixture boil. Skim off any foam that develops and let the mixture cool. Pour into clean, dry bottles. Cap tightly, seal if desired, and label.
Gourmet shops will have any number of flavored vinegars, none of which can compare to what herb gardeners have been making for years.
Flavored vinegars can become a mainstay for creative cooking. They provide flexibility for flavoring all types of foods, from appetizers to desserts. Salad dressings are the obvious first choice for use, with a quick vinaigrette the epitome of simplicity. Just whisk vinegar and oil together, using a proportion of 2 to 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, perhaps adding a bit of mustard, some freshly minced herbs, and a dash of salt and pepper. The combinations are endless: vary the types of olive oils as well as canola, sesame, walnut, and hazelnut oils with the infinite number of flavored vinegars and mustards. Let your imagination go when dressing salad with herbs or other flavorings.
Marinades for grilled or broiled meats or steamed vegetables also can use an herb-laced vinegar and oil mixture. A splash of vinegar combined with honey or maple syrup makes a great glaze for vegetables. Vinegar is also the perfect liquid for deglazing a pan to make a sauce after sautéing meat. Adding a dash of vinegar into soup just before serving brightens the flavors.
Use herb-flavored vinegars (made from vinegar with at least 5 percent acidity) in making pickles, preserves, and jellies. For dessert, combine herbal vinegar and herbal tea in sorbets. Custardy vinegar pie has a culinary heritage more than a hundred years old, when vinegar was more available than vanilla.
Vinegar has uses outside the kitchen, too. Lavender and rose petal vinegars, especially, are useful, whether for softening the skin in bathwater or making hair soft and shiny as a hair rinse. Mixed with distilled water, these vinegars are good facial tonics, restoring the acid balance to the skin after washing.
Maggie Oster is the author of many books on gardening and cooking, including Herbal Vinegar, 1994, and her latest, The Herbal Palate, 1996, both from Storey Communications. She is also a freelance photographer and horticulturist who lives in Indiana and Kentucky.
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