Inventive Infusions for a Classic Condiment

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Today, it’s simple to slip vinegar into homemade salad dressings, sauces, chutneys, soups, shrubs, and more.

Loathe as we mightbe to admit it, there are only so many herbs one kitchen can handle. Even when the beneficial plants are preserved as medicine, dried for seasonings, and tossed atop delicious meals, by the end of the harvest, you might be running out of creative ways to preserve and use the overabundance of your garden.

Luckily, there may be something you haven’t yet considered to save the bright flavor of your favorite garden herbs: infusing them. Many common cooking staples, such as honey and oil, combine delightfully with herbs and spices, but maybe none so well as vinegar. Vinegar’s acidic bite, packed with the fresh tastes of a flourishing garden, makes for a unique spin on a classic ingredient, and your infusion will be more versatile than the plain vinegar ever was. All you need is the herb or spice of your choice, and vinegar with which to pair it.

Vinegar’s Beginnings

One of the beauties of vinegar as an ingredient is its vast history as a food, disinfectant, and cleanser. The first record of the existence of wine is from Babylonia, circa 5000 B.C.E. Vinegar is the next natural step in the fermentation of wine and other alcohols, so the (likely accidental) discovery of this preservative and medicine couldn’t have come too long after. It’s from this fermentation that various vinegars receive their names: red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, apple cider vinegar, etc.

From Babylonia, vinegar spread to Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and, eventually, the Western world. Vinegar became so well known, in fact, that in his 1st-century text Natural History, Pliny the Elder wrote of a bet between Cleopatra and Mark Antony in which she claimed she could eat the equivalent of $500,000 in one meal. When the meal arrived, she was served only one cup of vinegar; she dropped one of the two “largest pearls of all time” into the cup, waited for the vinegar to dissolve it, and swallowed it.

Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” prescribed his patients a mixture of vinegar and honey for persistent coughs. It’s claimed that medieval doctors created lavender and rosemary vinegars for unease, both of the stomach and of the brain. Early Greek, Roman, and Asian physicians suggested that vinegar aided digestion and lowered bile levels. As recently as the American Civil War, vinegar was used to treat scurvy, and in World War I, it was an accepted treatment for wounds.

Modern medicine verifies vinegar’s antimicrobial properties, but experts advise against using it to treat wounds or as an anti-infective, as it’s proven ineffective against certain bacteria. It’s better used as a disinfectant in the realm of food preparation. However, health studies are currently underway to test vinegar’s efficacy against hypertension, glycaemia, and even cancer.

While perhaps not a powerful medicine, vinegar has proven to be a healthful addition to diets. When ingested, it reduces oxidative damage and improves antioxidant capacities in the body. Its acetic acid content helps regulate lipid metabolism. And, of course, vinegar contains the same immunity-boosting and probiotic properties that most fermented foods do.

Why Infuse Vinegar?

Today, it’s simple to slip vinegar into homemade salad dressings, sauces, chutneys, soups, shrubs, and more. The acidity and depth of flavor it adds to food is incomparable — except, possibly, when it comes to infused vinegars. Adding an extra hint of fresh herbal flavor or fragrant spice can elevate any dish, and the combinations are endless. While some — such as red and white wine vinegars — can be paired with just about any herb, fruit, or spice combination you desire, other vinegars will truly shine in specific blends. For example, champagne vinegar is particularly delicious infused with lemongrass, lemon zest, or lemon verbena. Infuse apple cider vinegar with strong spices, such as garlic, cloves, horseradish, or tarragon. And try sherry vinegar with aromatic herbs, such as rosemary, basil, sage, or thyme.

The benefits of these concoctions are as important as the flavors. When you use infused vinegar, you’re not only ingesting the usual healthful properties of vinegar, but the benefits of the infused plants, too. Infused vinegars are nourishing in new ways, and they even retain some of the beneficial polyphenols from the plants with which they’re made.

Perhaps the most potent example of the benefits of infused vinegar is the legendary “Four Thieves Vinegar Recipe,” an infusion for which each herbalist has her own concoction. The true recipe is said to date back to the 17th century in France, when the plague was sweeping through the country. Legend claims that a band of four thieves were able to rob the houses of the dead and dying, without succumbing to the plague themselves, thanks to the herbal vinegar blend with which they doused themselves. Why wouldn’t you give an infusion like this a try?

Dry and Store Harvested Herbs

Homegrown herbs are fresher than those you’d buy at the store, with a stronger, richer flavor. And when those herbs are dried, they’ll remain potent for 6 to 12 months. To dry herbs in your kitchen, all you need is air circulation. Some warmth can also help. 

Harvest herbs for drying just before they flower. Once they’re gathered, no matter which drying process you’ll use, remove old, dead, diseased, or wilted leaves from the sprigs you’ve collected. Wash the herbs if you wish, but be sure to dry them well.

For a simple air-drying method, tie the stems of the herbs in bundles, and hang them upside-down in a warm, dry spot. Use twist-ties so you can easily tighten the bundles, because the stems will shrink as they dry. Loosely wrap muslin, a mesh bag, or a paper bag with several small holes punched in it around the bundle, and tie it at the neck. Another option is to lay the herbs out on cheesecloth over a drying screen. Air-drying may take a few hours to several days.

Because you don’t want to dry herbs in direct sunlight or humidity, and because using the oven for drying can be labor-intensive, avoid oven drying or solar drying unless conditions are perfect.

Your herbs are ready when you can crumble them easily between your fingers, but don’t crumble them all — whole leaves and seeds retain oils better in storage than crumbled herbs. Store your dried herbs in airtight jars out of direct light.

Infusion Basics

To make any infused vinegar, you’ll need supplies. First, choose a nonreactive container and lid — vinegar eats through metal. The container may be glass, porcelain, or enamel. For the lid, use plastic, cork, or enamel. If your only option is a canning jar with a metal lid, place two sheets of wax or greaseproof paper between the mouth of the jar and the lid when you screw on the top.

To strain your herbs and spices from the vinegar when the infusion is finished, you’ll want a plastic funnel and a fine-mesh sieve, cheesecloth, or coffee filter. This is especially important when using dried herbs, to catch small plant particles.

Vinegar stores best in narrow-necked bottles. Sterilize your permanent storage jar before straining the infused vinegar into it, and don’t seal it with a metal top.

Plan to fill your container about 3/4 of the way with packed, finely chopped fresh plant material; when you pour in the vinegar, you’ll want the liquid to cover the herbs by at least 1 inch, with a little headspace left at the top of the jar. Fill the jar only about 1⁄4 of the way with dried herbs, but still fill with vinegar almost to the top.

Once your vinegar and herbs are sealed, store the infusion in a cool, dark location for up to a month, shaking occasionally. You may open the vinegar to taste-test periodically, and to add more vinegar if needed to cover the herbs. When you like the flavor, strain out the infusion ingredients, and store the vinegar in a sterilized bottle. For longest shelf life, store your creation in a cool, dark cabinet, or in the refrigerator, where it should keep for up to one year.

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Haley Casey is an associate editor at Heirloom Gardener, an aspiring gardener, and a collector of new ideas for natural health and delicious recipes.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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