Add some zing to a meal with a flavored vinegar

Flavored vinegars are a way to use berries and herbs from the garden to add flavor to a meal.

Looking for a way to add depth of flavor to some food dishes? Why not make flavored vinegar using either herbs or berries from the garden? Michigan State University Extension says that flavored vinegars are easy and fairly safe to make, provided precautions and the directions are followed.

First, only glass containers can be used to make flavored vinegars. The glass jars and bottles need to be free of cracks and nicks. The containers can be sealed with cork stoppers or two-piece canning lids. The glass containers will need to be washed, rinsed and sterilized.

For the herbal vinegars, choose fresh picked herbs for the best flavor. The flavor of the herbs is at its peak just before the herb flowers. Three or four sprigs of herbs are needed per pint of vinegar. When picking the herbs do so in the morning, just after the dew has dried but before the noon sun. Use only the best leaves or stems. Discard crushed, discolored, dried out or nibbled on pieces because these will give the vinegar a bitter flavor, plus the quality will be poor. The damaged pieces may introduce mold spores into the vinegar. The saying, “Garbage in Garbage out” applies. If damaged product is put in, less than desirable product will come out.

Gently, and thoroughly, wash the herbs. Blot them dry. Next, dip the herbs in a sanitizing bleach solution. The concentration of the chlorine bleach solution should be one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to six cups of water. Then rinse the herbs thoroughly under cold water. Use clean paper towels to blot the herbs dry. The step of rinsing in the chlorine bleach solution is needed to avoid introducing food borne pathogens into the product.

Dried herbs may be used. Three tablespoons of dried herbs are needed per pint of vinegar.

Favorite fruits used in vinegars are raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, peaches, pears and the peel of lemons or oranges. Sometimes the fruits are paired with herbs and spices like mint or cinnamon. Other popular flavorings include peeled garlic, green onions, jalapeno or other peppers, mustard seed and peppercorns.

Preparation of the fruit and vegetables includes washing and peeling, if necessary. Small fruits and vegetables may be left whole, whereas larger fruits like peaches need to be cubed or sliced. Allow one to two cups of fruit per pint of vinegar or the peel of a whole orange or lemon per pint of vinegar.

Not all vinegars are created equal. Distilled white vinegar is clear in color, but has a distinctively sharp flavor of its own. However, distilled white vinegar is the best choice for those delicate herb flavors. Apple cider vinegar is milder in flavor, but the amber color may not be desirable. The apple cider vinegar blends best with fruits.

Even though wine or champagne, vinegars are more expensive as they tend to have a more delicate flavor.

White wine and champagne vinegars work well with delicate herbs and light flavored fruits. Red wine goes good with spices and stronger herbs like rosemary. Most other herb flavors will be masked by the red wine flavor.

Beware that wine vinegars contain some protein, which make them an excellent medium for bacterial growth to take place in. If wine vinegars are used, they need to be handled properly and stored carefully. For safety reasons use only commercially produced vinegars.

The process of flavoring the vinegar involves placing the prepared fruits, herbs and/or spices in the sterilized glass jars. Use three to four sprigs of fresh herbs or three tablespoons of dried herbs per pint jar. For fruits, use one to two cups of fruit or the peel of one orange or lemon per pint of vinegar to be flavored. Do not over pack the jars.

Sometimes it is necessary to “slightly bruise” the herbs or fruits to help release the flavors. When working with jalapeno or hot peppers it is wise to wear gloves.

Heat the vinegar to just below the boiling point about 190 -195 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour over the flavoring. Leave a quarter-inch of head space. Wipe the rims with a clean damp cloth. Adjust the lid, corks or screw cap tightly. Allow to cool undisturbed.

Store the vinegar in a cool, dark place for three to four weeks. This will give the flavors the chance to develop.

After three to four weeks, strain the vinegar through damp cheesecloth or coffee filters until it is no longer cloudy. This may take more than one straining. Discard the fruit, herbs, vegetables and spices. They have served their purpose.

Prepare the jars for the final bottling process. Pour the strained vinegar into clean sterilized jars and cap tightly. Label the vinegar. Decorate the jar if it is a gift.

Flavored vinegars can add excitement to dishes by the blending of different flavors. Try this new gift of the garden.

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