Laugh if you must, but one of my fondest memories of my honeymoon is visiting an olive oil and vinegar shop and tasting as many flavors as I wanted. This was about a decade ago, before I really got into food and before “artisan” was a catchy byword.
As fun as it was tossing back shots of raspberry balsamic vinegar, the habit wasn't sustainable. Such specialty foods can be expensive and leave you committed to a bottle of chipotle olive oil that you use once and then ends up collecting dust in your pantry.
If you, too, have a weakness for such boutique items but not enough cash to buy them regularly, good news: You can become your own flavor wizard by infusing a variety of pantry and bar staples in whatever amounts you want.
Here's how to get started.
Vinegars “can be used to lift a dish, to pull its components together, or to balance out sweetness and give depth,” writes Diana Henry in “Salt Sugar Smoke: How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat and Fish.” Flavored vinegar can do that even more. “Vinegars help you to create layers of flavor, and to play around with the subtleties of taste, too.”
You can infuse vinegar with a wide array of foods, but herbs, fruit and alliums (garlic, leeks, onions) are especially well-suited.
Preserving cookbook author Marisa McClellan of the blog Food in Jars said one of her strategies is to use scraps from other projects, such as jam or pie. Berry seeds, stone fruit pits and even strawberry hulls still have plenty of flavor to impart. Or she'll use vinegar infusions to get the most out of a small, expensive purchase, as she does with ramps. A single dish made with ramps is fleeting, but a ramp-flavored vinegar can be used in salads and pan sauces all year long.
McClellan's rough rule is one part infusing agent – cherry pits, for example – to one part vinegar. Her “house” vinegar is apple cider (she recommends Vermont Village brand), which is what she most often uses for flavored vinegars. It's a good all-purpose vinegar that goes well with a lot of flavors. Just avoid cider-flavored vinegar, which is different. And that white distilled is best left for cleaning.
Daniel Liberson of Lindera Farms, who brews and infuses vinegars for retail sale, suggests investing in a medium-to-good vinegar, such as a wine vinegar – even better if it's one you can taste first.
To infuse, add your flavoring ingredient to a clean, dry jar and pour over the vinegar. McClellan advises letting it infuse for a week or two at room temperature. Liberson says especially strong flavors, such as garlic, can start flavoring in even a few hours. One of his ideas is to spread your vinegar over a few jars and let them infuse for different amounts of time. See which you like best, or mix them to get the right level of flavor.
When you're happy with the flavor, strain out the solids. McClellan likes to use a nylon mesh strainer designed for kefir, but a damp paper coffee filter will work, too. Infused vinegars will last at least a year, if not more.
McClellan tends not to do much with oil because the risk of botulism is higher. The toxin-producing bacteria thrive in oxygen-free environments such as oil, especially when moisture is present. If you don't want to go through the process of treating your infusing food to eliminate the risk of botulism, you can still safely make flavored oils by heating them with, say, herbs as long as the herbs are clean and dry and you use the oil right away or within a few days (store it in the refrigerator).
McClellan especially likes flavored honeys for serving with cheese or charcuterie. She recommends working in small amounts, though, because you won't be using much at a time.
Choose a mild honey (such as clover, not buckwheat or orange blossom) and combine it in a clean, dry jar with whatever you choose as your infusing flavor. Flavorful herbs – think rosemary, thyme and lavender – are perfect. McClellan doesn't like to heat the honey initially. You might get more of an initial blast of flavor, but you won't have as much control over how strong it is. So just be lazy and let it infuse for at least a few weeks (in a sunny spot, the flavor will develop faster) until you're happy with it.
When it comes time to filter out the solids with a fine-mesh sieve, you can heat the honey then, which will make it easier to pour and take care of any crystallization that may have occurred because of the cold infusion. The honey should keep well as long as you dip into it with clean utensils.
Simple syrups are great for stirring into drinks, brushing onto cakes or muffins and using in fruit salad.
Making it couldn't be easier: One part water to one part sugar, plus whatever flavor – herbs, fruit, fruit remnants, vanilla, ginger, etc. – you want. When you bring the sugar and water to a boil, you can include the infusing ingredient or hold off. If you wait, add it as soon as the syrup comes to a boil and you take it off the heat. Let the syrup cool to room temperature, strain it (or let it steep for longer, if you want) and store in the refrigerator in a clean, dry jar. It should last at least 2 to 3 weeks.
“Infusing your booze is so simple, but very impressive,” writes Kathy Kordalis in “Infused Booze.” “It involves minimum effort for maximum flavor.”
Common bases are vodka and gin; other light liquors you can use are white rum, dark rum and tequila, according to Kordalis. Darker can be trickier, although doable if you pair the right flavors. Don't be compelled to spend a lot on the alcohol, she advises, as long as it's something you would still drink on its own.
Options for infusing alcohol are almost limitless. Take your pick of herbs, spices, nuts, fruits or vegetables. One suggestion Kordalis offers is to aim for 7 to 14 ounces of fruit per liter (34 fluid ounces) of liquor. She suggests using a sterilized jar for infusing, although McClellan doesn't bother since alcohol naturally inhibits the growth of anything potentially harmful.
How long should you let the booze infuse? Kordalis' rough guide is 24 hours for stronger flavors (hot pepper, vanilla), 5 to 7 days for spices and vegetables, 3 to 4 months for berries and strong fruit and up to a month for milder flavors (apple, melon, florals). Just taste every so often until you're happy with the flavor. At one point, McClellan uncovered an approximately 3-year-old jar of Meyer lemon peels in grain alcohol hiding in her closet (a dark environment can help retain color). It was still good.
Kordalis suggests straining the alcohol through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the solids and then lining the sieve with a cheesecloth or kitchen towel to clarify it, though whether you do that may depend on how fussy you want to be about it. A coffee filter is an option, too. The infused alcohol should be stable for as long as you decide to keep it around.
Among the combinations McClellan likes are plums with brandy, peaches with whiskey and cherries with bourbon. Limoncello is another possibility. One tip McClellan has: Try to expose as much of the fruit or vegetable as possible to the alcohol, whether that means piercing the cherries all over, slicing citrus or, as she does, pulsing rhubarb in a food processor. More exposure means more flavor and more color.
Even as someone who cans and writes about canning for a living, McClellan is a huge proponent of the mostly set it and forget it model of infusing. “This is kind of preserving for lazy people – and I include myself in that category.”
Plus, it won't cost you your rent to do it.