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Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking

Alison Anton's Natural Cooking Blog offers healthy recipes, inspirational food articles and culinary advice for the natural chef, and features dessert recipes from her upcoming cookbook, Desserts for Every Body.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Herb-Infused Oils and Vinegars - A Perfect Holiday Gift

Herb-infused oils add sophistication to any recipe and romance to any kitchen. They are easy to prepare, and when presented in decorative bottles or jars, make impressive gifts for just about anybody.

Infused oils can be used for sauteeing, but retain most of their aromatics when used as a base for salad dressings, marinades and sauces. Drizzled with a little aged Balsamic vinegar, they make a flavorful dip for French and Italian breads, and add pizzazz to vegetables and meats. Likewise, the vibrant flavors of steeped vinegars bring fresh salads to life, and give marinated meats and tofu an intense depth of flavor.

Aromatic herbs such as thyme, bay, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, sage and tarragon work well as they easily impart their distinct fragrances into the oil or vinegar. Herbs can be used alone or in a mixture. Spices such as garlic, chilis, cinnamon, anise and peppercorns are also commonly used. Their strong essential oils can easily overpower, but if used sparingly, they add fragrant highlights that go hand in hand with the oil and herbs.

Oils and vinegars can be infused in two ways - a hot-infusion or a cold-infusion. The cold-infusion method does not require any heating of the oil, but it does need about 2-3 weeks for steeping. So if you're in a pinch for last minute gifts, you'll be better off with a hot-infusion.

Oils steeped in herbs have a tendency to go rancid more quickly than oils on their own. Some herbs carry molds and bacteria that can transfer into the oil and ruin the batch, or worse yet, can be harmful if injested. Follow the guidelines below to ensure that your oils stay safe for consumption:

• If intended to be used for culinary purposes, infused oils should always be stored in the refrigerator.

• Consume steeped oils and vinegars within 4-8 weeks of steeping time.

• Remove the herbs once they are not fully covered by the oil.

• Steep your oils and vinegars in very clean, tight sealing glass jars. The jars also need to be completely dry, without a spot of water.

• If giving as a gift, include a tag with the first three safety guidelines along with the oil.

For an attractive presentation, choose lighter colored oils and vinegars that will allow the herbs to show through in the bottle. White wine vinegar, sherry or cider vinegars work beautifully, as well as light olive oil, sunflower and grapeseed oils. Look for pretty bottles at specialty shops like Pier 1 or Cost Plus Imports. If they do not come with corks, your local hardware store is sure to have them in many shapes and sizes.

Always start the steeping process in large, wide-mouth jars so that the herbs can easily be removed after steeping. When ready, place fresh sprigs of herbs into the decorative bottle, using a funnel to pour in the oil. Cork it, tie a ribbon around it and it's ready to go.

Article References:
Herbs, Joanna Farrow
Science of Cooking
Aromaweb.com

Garlic-Infused Oil
[print recipe]
Yield: about 4 cups

This fragrant oil makes a perfect base for herb infused oils, but is more than sufficient on its own. For a smaller batch, use several cloves of garlic and fill the oil just to cover; decrease the poaching time to 20-25 minutes only.

16 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
4 cups good quality oil

Place the garlic and oil in a medium saucepan over the lowest heat setting. Keep the pot uncovered and poach the garlic very gently for 30-35 minutes. Stir frequently (every 5-10 minutes) to ensure that the oil does not scorch.

Let cool to room temperature, then strain out the garlic, preferably through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth.

Fill clean, completely dry bottles with the oil, or do a second infusing with fresh herbs. Store in the refrigerator and use within a couple months.

Aromatic Vinegar [print recipe]
Yield: about 4 cups

2 tablespoons mixed peppercorns
4 lemon slices
Two small handfuls fresh herbs
6 bay leaves
4 cups good quality vinegar

Divide the peppercorns, lemon slices, fresh herbs and bay leaves between two clean, dry pint-sized bottles with wide mouths.

Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Let it cool slightly and pour it over the herbs and spices in the jars. Let the vinegar cool to room temperature, cover tightly and steep in a cool place for three days.

Strain the vinegar through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth.

Place fresh springs of herbs and peppercorns into decorative bottles. Fill the bottles with the vinegar and cork up the bottles. Store in a cool, dry place for several months; the flavors will continue to develop over time. Remove the herbs once they are not fully covered by the vinegar.

Herb and Spice Oil [print recipe]
Yield: about 4 cups

Several large sprigs rosemary, basil, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano ortarragon (or a combination)
Small handful dried chili peppers, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, coriander seeds or pepprcorns (or a combination)
6 bay leaves
4 cups good quality oil

Cold-Infusion Method - Divide the herbs and spices between two clean, dry pint-sized bottles with wide mouths. Pour the oil over the herbs and cover tightly. Store the bottles in a cool place for 2 weeks, checking once a week for flavor development. (Skip to Straining and Storing, below.)

Heat-Infusion Method (Crockpot) - Place the herbs, spices and oil in a crockpot on the lowest setting possible. Steep for two hours, stirring frequently, about every 10-15 minutes. (Skip to Straining and Storing, below.)

Heat-Infusion Method (Stovetop) - Place the herbs, spices and oil in a medium pot over very low heat. Keeping the pot uncovered, poach herbs very gently for 30-35 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure that the oil does not scorch. Cool the oil to room temperature.

Straining and Storing - Strain the oil through a muslin cloth or cheesecloth. Strain a second time. Place fresh sprigs of herbs and a small handful of spices into decorative jars. Pour the oil over the herbs and cork the bottles. Store in the refrigerator and use within a couple months. Remove the herbs once they are not fully covered by the oil.


4 Comments:

At 8:02 PM , Blogger Kimberly Brennan said...

Is it necessary to strain the oil? i like to use minced garlic to infuse the oil, then leave the garlic in for extra flavor while dipping. If i store the oil in the fridge, will it be okay with the pieces of garlic still in?

 
At 10:28 AM , Blogger Alison Anton said...

Hi Kimberly - Here's what I'd do: Strain out the original garlic from the steeped oil. Then add fresh minced garlic for the added flavor for dipping. Yes, if stored in the fridge, the oil should be fine for many weeks. It will be alright outside of the fridge for at least a couple weeks. Garlic, as well as chilis, ginger and cinnamon to name a few, have anti-microbial qualities and can stay in the oil longer without going bad. Some of the more saturated fats in olive oil will harden up a bit in the fridge, which is okay, but kind-of frustrating when you want a dipping oil now, instead of having to wait for it to soften. So I usually keep infused olive oil out of the fridge for a couple of weeks after steeping. I eat it up fast, though!!

 
At 10:37 AM , Anonymous Felicity Pine said...

I tried to post this before, but I don't think it worked so here I go again.

Question: I followed your heat-infusion method (in the crock pot) to herb-infuse olive oil for gifts. When I poured the oil over the fresh herbs in my decorative bottles, they looked great, but I left the bottles to cool overnight and then refrigerated them. Now they all look cloudy.

Are they safe to use? (I've written tags that say to refrigerate and to remove herbs when they are not fully covered by the oil.)

Can you leave them out to get to room temperature again? And for how long?

As you say, "Some herbs carry molds and bacteria that can transfer into the oil and ruin the batch, or worse yet, can be harmful if ingested."

How do I know FOR SURE that my oils are safe to use?

 
At 11:46 AM , Blogger Alison Anton said...

Hi Felicity,

I would not use the oil if it clouded over, it could be contaminated at this point. The heat infusion method is not to remove bacteria from the herbs, it's just a quicker way to infuse. Without heat, the oil would take about two weeks to steep to really be flavorful.

When heat-infusing, the old herbs need to be strained out, and strained again. The oil should have set at room temperature before pouring over the new herbs in the bottles.

There might have been water on the new herbs, or they didn't like the hot oil over them.

Don't give up! You'll make some good oil, it takes some practice. To start, just try the cold-infused method. it works great, just takes longer.

 

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