Fresh herbs are plentiful this time of year. Whether you pluck some from your own garden or nab some from your favorite farmers market, the fresh bounty can be used to transform ordinary vinegars into something amazing.
“An herbal vinegar is just any type of vinegar that is infused with herbs,” said Kathleen Savoie, extension educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “They’re super fun to use. I like them in homemade salad dressing. You can also use them if you’re making marinades, shrubs [or] drinking vinegars.”
With a little creative spirit and some patience, herbal vinegars will take your home cooking to the next level. Herbal vinegar also can be given as a wonderful homemade gift for friends and family.
Step 1: Choose your base
To start, select a type of vinegar to use as a base. Any type of vinegar can be used, but some will compliment certain flavorings better.
“Use whichever type of vinegar you want: apple cider, white, balsamic, wine, champagne,” Savoie said. “It depends on your taste. Distilled white vinegar is a very sharp tasting vinegar compared to something like an apple cider, which is a little more mellow. Wine or champagne vinegars have a distinctive taste. Rice vinegar tends to be one of the more mellow flavors.”
Savoie recommended white vinegar or apple cider vinegar to start. Wine and champagne vinegars are more expensive than other types, and balsamic vinegar has a strong flavor that can overwhelm the herbs.
Step 2: Choose your herbs
“You need to figure out what you want to have for a flavor profile,” Savoie said. “Identify which type of herb you want to use. You could use a combination of herbs if you wanted to.”
Harvest herbs before they blossom, and avoid leaves that are moldy, pest-damaged or discolored. Gather three to four sprigs of herbs for every pint — about two cups — of vinegar that you plan to prepare. A few tablespoons of dried herbs can be used instead of fresh herbs in a pinch.
Step 3: Clean your herbs
Sanitizing herbs prior to using them in herbal vinegars will prevent nasty bacteria, dirt and debris from contaminating your cooking project.
Savoie recommended dipping dry herbs in a mild sanitizing solution — a quarter teaspoon of germicidal bleach added to a pint of lukewarm water — for one minute.
“There are a lot of nooks and crannies on your curly parsley [and other] fresh herbs,” Savoie said. “When you dip them in the solution, see remains of bugs and debris that are left behind.”
Allow the herbs to dry fully after sanitizing.
Step 4: Choose your other mix-ins
To add more flavor to your herbal vinegar, you can also incorporate other ingredients like garlic, jalapenos, berries, citrus peels, or spices like cinnamon, peppercorns and mustard seeds. For fruit, add one to two cups per pint of vinegar; for spices, use about half a teaspoon of whole spices per pint.
“Truly, you can get as creative as you want,” Savoie said. “As I speak, I have spicy parsley vinegar flavoring on my counter, and also a cilantro, garlic and crushed red pepper [vinegar].”
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has a bulletin about making herbal vinegar with several popular combinations for herbal vinegars, including lemon, dill and peppercorn and raspberry vinegar. When choosing a combination, Savoie said to think ahead about what you would plan to use it for.
Step 5: Combine and set
Place your chosen herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables in sterilized pint jars. Heat the vinegar to just below boiling — between 190 and 195 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal — and pour it over the flavoring ingredients, leaving a quarter-inch of headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth and screw on lids.
“[Let it] set for three to four weeks,” Savoie said. “It’s in that time frame that the flavors truly develop.”
Taste the vinegar after a few weeks to see if the flavor is to your liking. If the flavor of the herbs and other mix-ins is too weak, allow it to set for longer. If the herbaceousness is overwhelming, dilute it by adding more vinegar.
Step 6: Strain and store
Once the vinegar is flavored to your liking, strain the vinegar by pouring it through a strainer, coffee filter or damp cheesecloth and discard the herbs and other mix-ins. Pour strained vinegar into clean, sterilized canning jars. A washed and sanitized sprig of fresh herb can be added to the jar, too, for aesthetic purposes. Refrigerated herbal vinegar will stay good for three months.
For longer, shelf-stable storage, heat and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner with a quarter-inch headspace. If your flavored vinegar starts to mold at any time or show signs of fermentation such as bubbling, cloudiness or sliminess, discard the concoction and try again.
For more information and guidance on how to make herbal vinegar, Savoie recommended tuning into the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s webinar about preserving herbs.