Have you ever been served a wonderful dipping oil for your bread at a restaurant and wondered what it was? The flavors awaken your taste buds and transform your dining experience into something wonderful. The art of infusing oils and vinegars add extra flavor and aroma with herbs, spices, citruses, and aromatics. Transforming your meals into something extraordinary with very little effort, an infusion is the creation of a new substance by steeping another substance in a liquid. The process to infuse is the same for both oils and vinegars. You can create delicious flavored oils and vinegars that are bursting with color, great taste, and have amazing aromas with just a few ingredients from your pantry. Buying them in the store can get pricey. Try making a few on your own and create additional layers of flavor in your recipes with only a minimal amount of effort.
One of the first steps you want to take is to sterilize the containers you are going to use to store the infused oils and vinegars. Find a bottle that has a good seal. Canning jars also work well, but if you want something more elegant, look for a container that has a rubber stopper. Start with the best ingredients you can afford. Using good quality olive oil, fresh herbs, and organic ingredients will give you a cleaner and stronger flavor in your finished olive oil. Please be careful when making these at home. Since most are infused with garlic and herbs and they grow from the ground, they can harbor bacteria. Improper handling could cause bacteria to grow and create foodborne illnesses, like botulism. Water can cause the bacteria to grow so making sure your ingredients are dry is key. Wash all the ingredients going into your oil and let them dry as much as possible – preferably overnight. Bacteria can’t grow in the olive oil itself, but it can grow in the water left on the ingredients going into the oil. Steeping your ingredients will prevent the foodborne illnesses as heat kills the bacteria. Since botulism is an anaerobic bacteria, meaning that it thrives in an environment lacking oxygen, it dies in the presence of oxygen. Olive oil essentially seals out oxygen and when you mix food in with the oil, you have an ideal breeding ground for these potentially deadly bacteria.
Start with 2 cups of extra virgin olive oil and your choice of spices, herbs or citrus zests. Use about 2-3 sprigs of your favorite herb and at least 2 tablespoons of your favorite zest if you’re doing a citrus infusion. With a mortar and pestle crush the herbs, to release the oils and momentarily set them aside. You can also take the back of a spoon and run over the herbs to release the oils. Spices can be lightly toasted and crushed in a mortar and pestle. Fruits like chili peppers or lemons can be sliced thinly. Pour your olive oil into a heavy bottom sauce pan and turn the stove to medium heat, about 180 degrees. You just want it to warm, not to cook or spatter. Add in your herbs and spices, and allow the herbs to gently simmer for just 2 minutes. Cover the saucepan with a lid and allow it all to steep for about 2 hours. Once you’re ready to bottle it, use a fine mesh strainer to remove the herbs and pour into a cleaned glass or vial. If you would like the pretty presentation, place a few fresh springs of herbs in the bottle or container before filling your container. Carefully use a funnel to pour your liquid into the containers. Cap and store in the fridge.
Always keep flavored oils refrigerated. They will last about 1 – 2 months when stored properly. Allow flavored oils to sit out at room temperature for approximately 20 minutes before each use. They tend to get a cloudy look to them when cold. After sitting at room temperature, the cloudiness goes away. Infused vinegars do not need to be refrigerated, they can be kept at room temperature for up to 2 months. If the infused ingredients in the oils and vinegars start to show any signs of spoilage, discard the whole bottle immediately. Err on the side of caution to prevent any illnesses.
You’re adding additional flavorings, so there’s no need to splurge on the most expensive oils, only what your budget allows. Any good-quality cooking oil will work just fine. Olive oil is a natural choice, given that it’s most likely in your kitchen already. A little fruity as well as slightly peppery, olive oil naturally complements
a wide variety of flavors, but be aware that its natural flavor characteristics will also come through in the final product. If you want the added ingredients to shine,
opt for either light olive oil or another neutrally flavored oil, such as peanut,
grape seed, or avocado.
White wine vinegar goes well with many herbs and is perfect for herbs or flower petals that produce color. Dill, basil, tarragon, chervil, and lemon balm are well-suited to white wine vinegar. Red wine vinegar adds a rich flavor and pairs well with sage, thyme, parsley and bay leaves. Apple cider vinegar pairs well with many herbs and makes an aesthetically pleasing vinegar. If you want to be gourmet, champagne vinegar will produce a beautifully delicate herbal vinegar. Infused vinegars can be added to marinades, drizzled over roasted vegetables or fish, use to baste chicken while baking, and added into soups and stews to add extra flavor.
Another way to enjoy an infused oil is to make it right on the spot. Place your olive oil, herbs, garlic, and citrus peels in a saucepan. Simmer gently for a few minutes to infuse. One idea is to use the oil to roast vegetables. When roasting your vegetables with garlic, it tends to burn. Making an infused oil prior to roasting and using on the vegetables instead of the raw garlic guarantees a great flavor without sacrificing the overall integrity of the dish.
These infusions are not only delicious, they are also beautiful. Displaying them in a pretty bottle makes it even better. Many kitchen and craft stores carry a wide assortment of bottles to use. Or you can just reuse the olive oil bottle. Infused oil and vinegar recipes will add panache to salads, steamed vegetables, soups and sauces. Better yet, since they allow you to flavor dishes without salt and limited fats, these healthy infused recipes help you cook healthier meals too.