Flavored vinegars can be safely prepared at home and are best if stored in the refrigerator.
** Caution: Garlic, vegetables or herbs in oil mixtures may support the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria. For safety reasons, they should be made fresh. Leftovers should be frozen, refrigerated for use within 10 days or discarded.
Flavored vinegars and oils add excitement to salads, marinades and sauces. They also make special gifts, provided a few simple precautions are followed. Of the two, flavored vinegars are easiest and safest to make. Because vinegar is high in acid, it does not support the growth of C. botulinum bacteria. However, some vinegars may support the growth of E-coli bacteria. Infused oils have the potential to support the growth of C. botulinum bacteria. These products may cause great harm if not made and stored properly. By following the procedures below, both types of products can be safely prepared and used.
Containers. Select and prepare containers first. Use only glass jars or bottles free of cracks or nicks and that can be sealed with a screw-band lid, cap or cork. Wash containers thoroughly, then sterilize by immersing the jars in a pan of hot water and simmering for 10 minutes, remove from the pan, drain extra water out and dry. Fill while the jars are still warm.
Herb vinegars. 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 solution of one teaspoon household bleach per six cups (1.5 quarts) of water, rinse thoroughly under cold water and pat dry. For best results, use only the best leaves 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 three tablespoons dried herbs per pint of vinegar.
Fruit, vegetable and spice vinegars. 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 one to two cups of fruit per pint of vinegar flavored. For variation, try fruits in combination with herbs or spices. Vegetables such as 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 clean water 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. Use only high-quality vinegars. Even the strongest herbs cannot diminish the sharp flavors of some vinegars. The type of vinegar to use as the base depends on what is being added. Fruits blend well with apple cider vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is best with delicate herbs and wine vinegar works 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.
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, three tablespoons of dried herbs, or one to two cups of fruit or vegetables per pint of vinegar to be flavored. Heat vinegar to just below boiling (190 degrees), then pour over the herbs and cap tightly. Allow to stand for three to four weeks 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.
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.
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. 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 are best considered as decoration and not used in food preparation.
Flavored vinegars can be used in any recipe calling for plain vinegar. They add zest to marinades for meats and fish, and interesting flavors to dressings for salads, pastas and vegetables.
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at 205-410-3696 or your local county Extension office.