Flavored vinegars add excitement to salads, marinades and sauces. They also make special gifts, provided a few simple precautions are followed. Flavored vinegars are easy and safe to make. Because vinegar is high in acid, it does not support the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria.
Vinegars can be flavored with berries, herbs, fruits, vegetables, spices, and edible flowers. For fruit flavors, try raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and the peels of lemons and oranges. Sometimes fruits are combined with herbs or spices such as mint, basil, or cinnamon. Other popular flavorings include peeled garlic cloves, jalapeno or other peppers, green onions, peppercorns or mustard seed.
For the base, several types of vinegar may be used, but not all give the same results.
Distilled white vinegar is clear in color and has a sharp acidic taste by itself. This is the best choice for delicately flavored herbs, such as parsley, rosemary and thyme.
Apple cider vinegar is made from cider or apple juice and has a milder taste than distilled white vinegar. It has a characteristic brownish-yellow color that may not be desirable. Apple cider vinegar blends best with fruits. Try this with strawberries.
Rice vinegar is most popular in East and Southeast Asia. This vinegar has a mild, slightly sweet flavor and is available in white, red, and black.
Making wine and champagne vinegars
Wine and champagne vinegars are generally more expensive than distilled and cider vinegars, but are more delicate in flavor. Wine vinegar is made from red or white wine and has a lower acidity than distilled white or cider vinegars. White wine and champagne vinegars work well with delicate herbs and lighter-flavored fruits. Red wine vinegars work well with spices and strong herbs like rosemary, but will mask the flavor of most herbs.
To make flavored vinegars, rice or wine vinegars are recommended for the foundation. Distilled white vinegar can be successfully made into flavored vinegar, but may be a bit stronger, sometimes overwhelming the delicate flavors of the herbs. By the same token, cider vinegar has a more distinctive flavor and color that may not be as attractive with some herb combinations.
Be aware that wine and rice vinegars contain some protein that provides an excellent medium for bacterial growth if not handled and stored properly.
Begin the preparation for making flavored vinegars with clean equipment and supplies. Equipment must be clean to avoid contaminating the vinegar. Make sure all bowls, jars, and measuring equipment are scrupulously clean. If you use a jar for steeping, sterilize them by heating in boiling water for 10 minutes.
A simple herb vinegar can be made easily by putting some fresh sprigs of herbs in a jar and pouring warm vinegar over them. The temperature of the vinegar will be just below boiling, about 190 degrees fahrenheit. Use 3 or 4 clean, dried (not wet) fresh sprigs per 2 cups of vinegar. Or, use 3 tablespoons of dried herbs per pint. Let the vinegar set for 3-4 weeks. Taste the vinegar periodically to determine when to stop the aging process as the vinegars are aged to personal taste and preference.
When the vinegar is properly aged, use cheesecloth to strain the juice. Discard the herbs. Fresh sprigs of herbs can be added to the finished product. The flavored vinegar can be processed in a boiling water canner for 5 minutes using sterilized jars with 2-piece lids.
When properly prepared, flavored vinegars should retain good quality for 2-3 months stored in a cool, dark place. Fruit vinegars in particular may start to brown and change flavor noticeably after that length of time. Refrigeration of all flavored vinegars is best for retention of freshness and flavors. Refrigeration may extend the quality for 6-8 months. Always keep vinegar bottles tightly sealed and date the bottles or jars when they are opened.
After six months, even if there is no sign of spoilage, taste the vinegar before using to make sure the flavor is still good. If a flavored vinegar has mold on or in it, or there are signs of fermentation such as bubbling, cloudiness, or sliminess, throw it away without using any of the vinegar for any purpose.
Herbed and fruited vinegars are often displayed on sunny windowsills and shelves as decorative room additions. If left out for more than a few weeks, these bottles are best considered as permanent decorations and not used in food preparation.
Recipes for making flavored vinegars are found in the CES UAF publication, Collecting and Using Alaska's Wild Berries and Other Wild Products.
Additionally, ideas and recipes can be found online from other state Extension publications: Colorado State University Extension at www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/FOODNUT/09340.html and UGA Extension at www.fcs.uga.edu/pubs/current/FDNS-E-1.html
Dr. Sonja Koukel is the Health, Home & Family Development Program educator for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District.