Safe Preserving: Flavored Vinegars and Oils

Flavored vinegars and oils add excitement to salads, marinades and sauces. They also make special gifts, provided a few simple precautions are followed. herb-vinegarOf the two, flavored vinegars are easiest and safest to make. Because vinegar is high in acid, it does not support the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Infused oils are not high in acid and do have the potential to support the growth of C. botulinum bacteria. Flavored oils may cause great harm if not made and stored properly.

Different types of vinegars will give different results when flavored. White vinegar is clear and has a sharp acidic flavor that can blend well with delicately flavored herbs. Apple cider vinegar has a milder taste; its amber color blends best with fruits. white wine and champagne vinegars work well with herbs and light-colored fruits. red wine vinegar has a strong flavor and works best with spices and strong-flavored herbs like rosemary. Be sure to use only commercially produced vinegars for flavoring.

Herbs and spices. Vinegars can be flavored with herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. Herbs and spices used to flavor vinegars include chive blossoms, rosemary, tarragon, dill, sage, lemon thyme,  peppercorns, and mustard seeds. Treat fresh herbs to prevent spoilage by briefly dipping in a sanitizing bleach solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach per 6 cups (1½ quarts) of water, then rinsing thoroughly under cold water, and patting dry. For best results, use only the best non-blemished leaves and flowers.  Allow three to four sprigs of fresh herbs or 3 tablespoons dried herbs per pint of vinegar. If flavoring with spices, use whole spices, not ground or powdered. Spices to try include Juniper berries, bay leaves, allspice, cloves, mustard seeds and peppercorns.

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 flavored. For variation, try fruits in combination with herbs or spices. Vegetables, such as fresh garlic cloves and jalapeno peppers, can add zest to vinegars. Thread these on thin bamboo skewers for easy insertion into bottles. Thoroughly rinse 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.

A wide variety of containers may be used. Use glass jars or bottles sealed with a non-metal cap or cork. Do not use metal utensils to prepare or store vinegar; do not use metal caps or stoppers for bottles. Wash hands well before starting any food preparation work. Wash containers thoroughly, then sterilize by boiling the bottles for 10 minutes prior to filling.

To make flavored vinegars, place the prepared herbs, fruits or spices in the sterilized bottles. 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 (190°F), 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, for the best product, 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 bottle. Add a sprig or two of fresh herbs that have been sanitized. Seal tightly and label. Store in a cupboard out of sunlight or in the refrigerator for best flavor retention.

Herbs- and garlic-in-oil. Herbs- and garlic- in oil mixtures are considered potentially garlicoil hazardous foods because of the large number of cases of botulism traced to homemade mixtures of garlic and oil.

These mixtures should be made fresh for use and not left at room temperature. Any leftovers should be refrigerated for use within three days, frozen for longer storage, or discarded.

Dried tomatoes in oil are less of a safety concern than other mixtures in oil because the acidity of the tomatoes is generally high enough to prevent growth of C. botulinum  will help deter pathogen growth. Dried herbs in oil also are less of a safety concern because of their low moisture. However, to ensure safety, it is recommended that all tomato-in-oil and herb-in-oil products be stored at refrigerator temperatures and used within three days.

In addition to reducing the potential for growth of C. botulinum bacteria, storing flavored oils in the refrigerator or freezer helps keep the oils from becoming rancid. All fats and oils will become rancid given enough exposure to air, sunlight and heat. Vegetable oils are especially prone to such deterioration. Eating rancid food won’t make you sick, but it may be unhealthy in the long run.

Fact sheets on preparing flavored vinegars have been developed by the University of Georgia and Colorado State University.

Safe preserving! Barb