Vinegar has truly come into its own these days. Not so long ago, you might find white, cider and maybe some red in most stores; Now you can find a truly amazing assortment of varietal and infused vinegars. Here again though, its caveat emptor. Many commercial vinegars, like most other processed foods, contain stuff you don’t want or need to put in your body. Then there’s the price; typically I see $4 to $8 for 12 ounces or so of a flavored vinegar.
Here’s my guarantee; buying what you need to make these will cost a tiny fraction of that kinda dough. Make them yourself at home. Plain old white vinegar is great for making your own infused varieties, though you can and should try some others as well. Decent jugs of white, red, cider, and even wine can be bought quite inexpensively and mixed at home. Keep in mind that wine and rice vinegars contain protein that provides an excellent medium for bacterial growth, so proper storage and FIFO practices are critical when using them for home infusion.
With the recent interest in home fermenting, you may even decide to make your own vinegar at home, (But that’s a later post).
Fact is, Infused vinegars can be made safely and easily at home, and as with most things house made, they’re far superior to the commercial alternatives. There are, of course, a couple of very important caveats.
1. They are best stored in the refrigerator, and
2. Garlic, vegetable, and herbs in vinegar can still support the growth of C. botulinum bacteria.
For these reasons, vinegars should be made fresh in relatively small batches, refrigerated and used within a couple of months; no great burden there. Here’s the scoop to safely make your own at home.
Use only crack and Nick free glass jars with a good seal for infusing.
Wash your hands and other equipment well before starting any food preparation work. I like good quality, wide mouth canning jars for their ease of loading and unloading.
Sterilize your jars in a pan of water at a rolling boil for five minutes. Remove jars to a clean paper towel to dry. Fill your jars while they’re still warm. Caps and stoppers should be dropped into boiling waters, then immediately taken off the heat. Leave them in the hot water until you’re ready to use them.
Herbs and spices need to be blanched; this will help keep them safe and also makes them look downright lovely in your jars. Use only the best, freshest, cleanest leaves and flowers with no brown spots, wilt, or other lesions. Picking fresh herbs first thing in the morning is a best practice. Prepare a pan of water at a rolling boil, with an ice bath, (50% ice and water), along side. Plunge your herbs I to the boiling water for 30 seconds, then transfer I’m immediately to the ice bath for about 30 seconds. Remove from ice bath and place on clean paper towels for use. A good general ratio is 3 tablespoons of herbs to a pint of vinegar; start there and adjust as you see fit.
Fruit is wonderful in an infused vinegar; strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, citrus, pears, mangoes and kiwis are all great candidates. The peel, (no white pith) and meat of a citrus fruit, or 1 cup of other fruit per pint of vinegar is a good starting ratio.
Veggies like onion, shallot, garlic, ginger, tomato, chiles, make great infusions as well. Of course you can always follow the Rule of Three in this pursuit as well. Garlic-Lime-Dill, Lemon-Jalapeño-Cilantro, or Juniper-Pepper-Kiwi anyone?
Try threading fruits and veggies into a thin bamboo skewer for easy insertion and removal. Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables with clean water and peel, if necessary, before use. Small fruits and vegetables may be halved or left whole; large ones will need to be sliced or cubed.
When choosing a vinegar for infusion, consider the flavor profile of the variety and what you want to infuse. Cider vinegar goes great with fruit. Distilled white works best with delicate herbs and spices. Red and white wine vinegars work well with garlic and tarragon. Malt or cider works very nicely with veggies.
When you’re ready to infuse, sterilize the jars or bottles you’ll use to store your vinegars in as you did the infusing jars above. I reuse hot sauce bottles for this and they do quite nicely, but new bottles are not pricy, and are a nice treat if you’re making this stuff for gifts.
Heat your vinegar to 190° F, then carefully pour over the herbs and cap tightly, (A canning funnel will come in really handy for this process.) Allow your vinegars to stand for three to four weeks in a cool, dark place for full flavor development.
When they’re ready, strain the vinegar through damp cheesecloth over a colander, chinoise or double mesh strainer. As you would with house made stock, continue to filter until the vinegar runs clear. Discard whatever you used to infuse with. You can add a fresh sprig of herb, fruit, etc in the bottle if it’ll fit, but follow the ingredient prep directions above if you do. Seal tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.