If you've followed along in previous posts you've already learned some great things about what flavor is and how we taste. Using that information is the start on how to play with flavor and make amazing dishes. Once that foundation is made though, the real fun begins. How can we incorporate different flavors into our food? Of course you can go the simplest route of just adding a spice, herb, or other ingredient into a dish but depending on the dish and the ingredient you want the flavor from, that isn't always the best case. So now we can start getting into other ways to infuse flavors into our food. The first one I want to start with is the easiest one, infused oils and vinegars.
Now before we get into the various methods of making infused oils and vinegars I first want to give a little warning/disclaimer and talk about food safety.
As a food professional I go through training every few years to make sure I'm up to date on food safety practices and the dangers that come with food. Overall I'm not the biggest fan of a lot of these practices since historically there are things that don't fit into these modern standards of food. Specifically a lot of cultural delicacies and fermented foods tend to get restrictions because they pose a threat of creating a food borne illness. At the end of the day there is always a danger in food. Just look at recent outbreaks on leafy greens and the recalls that follow because there was a positive test for a bacteria or virus.
The #1 thing to remember is to be clean as possible. Wash your hands regularly. Wipe down the counter often. And use clean container for anything you make. The problem with what we will talk about is that oil is a low to zero oxygen environment. This leaves to door open to a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum (or C. botulinum). This bacteria can produce a toxin overtime if misused so it's best to be safe. In terms of infused vinegar, the acidity will keep the bacteria at bay so there is no worry. Oil on the other hand is the issue. If using fresh ingredients, it's best to refrigerate the oil and use it within a few weeks. Dried ingredients tend to be safer, but when you open a bottle of infused oil and notice a release of gas, toss it. That's the best indicator of the bacteria. You might have hear don't buy bulging cans, same principle. C. botulinum has produced gas and caused a bulge.
You can always sterilize with high heat, 250F (121C) for 3 minutes, or cook with the infused oil since the toxin is destroyed rapidly at 176F (80C). Many herbs and spices also have antibacterial properties so I highly suggest doing a little research into what might help keep the oil stable for longer. At the end of the day, personally I have not have problems with infusions at home and have left oils infusing for months without noticing any gas build up, but always be safe.
Okay, now that that is out of the way let's get into infusing some oils and vinegars. The process of infusing is pretty simple and the best way to get new flavors into a recipe without adding pieces of that ingredient. Similar to infusing flavors into cream before making ice cream, infusing oils and vinegars will bring those flavors and thus a nice surprise since the one eating a dish won't be able to see the ingredient in the first place.
When infusing there are two main ways to go about it. Warm infusion and cold infusion. Each method is pretty self explanatory but I will get into more details along with the difference when doing vinegar and oil.
What Oil to Use
First let's talk about the oils to infuse with. You can technically use any oil you have. Though, depending on the process you are using will play into this choice along with the infused flavor. Some oils are best without much heating, think olive oil, so it is best to not do a warm infusion with these oils so not to change their flavor or appearance. You also want to think about the texture and base flavor of the oil. I find oils like canola and vegetable that are great for frying and cooking to have a greasier taste and mouthfeel so I would avoid using these oils for infusions.
Avocado oil is a great option to use for either warm or cold infusions. It has a great mouthfeel and a high smoke point so it can be heated without change to the appearance. Grapeseed is also a great oil that I love to use especially for warm infusions since it is a great cooking oil. Plus is has a great mouthfeel so it can be used as a finishing oil or one to add to a dish while cooking.
No matter which oil you choice I highly suggest thinking long term on what the main use of the oil will be. You don't want to make it and the decide you want it for something it won't work as great for. At the end of the day avocado, although sometimes pricier, is a great option especially if you plan to gift the infused oil to family and friends.
Cold Oil Infusion
Now let's get into how to infuse your oil. Cold infusions is the simplest, easiest, and my preferred method of infusing oil. Simply take a container to infuse the oil in, add the ingredient you are infusing into the oil, and cover with oil. That's it! This method is great with dried or fresh ingredients but note that dried ingredients take longer to infuse in the cold method.
When you make your infusion, you'll want to leave the oil to get some flavor over a couple days minimum but I like to wait at least a week so I get a deep flavor infusion. This works a lot better for stronger flavors like basil, garlic, thyme, etc. Some lighter flavors are better in a warm infusions to get a stronger flavor to come out. You also want to be careful what exactly you infuse. Mostly use herbs and spices since many have a low water content and won't mess with the oil that much. If you want a fruit or vegetable infusion, like tomato or strawberry, use dried or dehydrated. This way you get the flavor but don't have to worry about all the water that comes with fruits.
Warm Oil Infusion
Warm infusion is a great method if you need an oil faster. Since the heat helps with the infusion this type of oil can be used immediately. Maybe you get the idea for an infused oil while cooking? Whip up a quick batch of this and you'll have it ready before it's time to eat! There are two main ways to tackle this method, heat the oil then add infusion or heat them together. I prefer to heat the oil so I don't cook the infused ingredient. You also want to be careful not to overheat the oil. It's best to keep the oil at a lower heat, around 140-170F. If you get too high in heat you will cook the infusion and the oil can be affected. This is why you should also choice a less heat sensitive oil.
The ingredients you infuse in this method ideally should be dried. Fresh ingredients can easily burn but dried can withstand more heat before burning. The water content of fresh ingredients can also mess with the oil and the heat will allow more water to escape the ingredients and into the oil. This method is also a lot more effective for lighter flavors, especially floral. A nice lavender or rose oil may seem different but can add a nice uplifting flavor to a dish. The warm method will help bring a lot of those lighter flavors into the oil for a great infusion. The number one warm infusion I like though is chili. Chilis can withstand the warmth of the oil and it brings a really strong kick of flavor into the infusion. Plus a simple chili oil drizzle is a great way to add flavor to almost any dish.
After you make the infusion you also want to be careful with storage. Overall I have added hot things to glass mason jars many times and never had a crack or break but you always want to double check after adding the oil to avoid a spill later one.
What Vinegars to Infuse
Infusing vinegars is just as great as oil. A lot of people think they won't use vinegars as much but you should really add vinegar to your food. It adds a nice acidity and brightens up a lot of your dishes while helping the body to absorb more of the nutrients in the food you eat. Most of the time people think of infusing balsamic vinegar but at the end of the day you can infuse any vinegar. Although I love balsamic vinegar and the flavor it has alone, apple cider vinegar is my favorite to infuse and use in my cooking especially when it's not cooked and the healthy microbes I can get in a raw apple cider vinegar. The best part of making infused vinegars though it how safe they are compared to infused oils. Like I mentioned above, there can be a danger in infused oils with bacteria in a low oxygen environment. Vinegar on the other hand is acidic and will prevent bacterial growth, so you can make it and allow to infuse longer and have a longer period to use it.
Cold Vinegar Infusion
Just like with the oil this is the simplest, easiest, and my preferred method. It also won't make your kitchen smell like vinegar. Simply take whatever you wish to infuse into the vinegar and pack it into a jar or container, cover with vinegar, and let sit. That's it! This process takes longer to infuse that the oil does in the cold method. You'll ideally want the vinegar to sit for a month to get a deep flavor infusion. While it infused you'll also want to check on it every so often to stir it up and disperse the infusion to get the most of the flavor. You can shake the container or open it and mix with a spoon, whatever works for you. I will say that you should not be using fresh fruits in this. The fruit will add a lot of water content and alter the mixture to possibly allow mold to grow. If you notice any mold growth make sure to toss the vinegar and make a new one.
After the infusion has been steeping for a month, you can use it as is or strain. Depending on what you use it for and if you used whole or ground infusions, you can use a cheesecloth to remove any material and this will also allow the infused vinegar to last longer. Since it's so acidic, the vinegar will last a year or even longer. Expect it have a shorter shelf life if it is infused with fresh ingredients, especially if you don't strain them out after a period.
Warm Vinegar Infusions
Again, warm infusions are best when you need it in a hurry. You can get a nice flavor from it immediately but I will still suggest letting it sit a day or two to cool and infuse for a nice flavor. To do a warm infusion, heat the vinegar until it starts to have a strong odor. Then pour it over the infused material in a clean container and let it sit and cool. Since you heat the vinegar, you can expect your kitchen is going to smell a little while doing this. That's my main reason why I prefer not to do warm infusions with vinegar. You can also warm the vinegar in a double boiler style method. Place the vinegar and infused ingredient(s) in a heat safe and closable container and sit it in a pot of water, Heat it until it's simmering then turn off heat and let sit in the water for about 20 minutes. This will warm the vinegar without allowing it to evaporate, keeping your kitchen smelling the same.
Storage of Infused Oils and Vinegars
Now this is my favorite part, especially when making an infusion for a gift, how to package and store it. I love to use fancy bottles to make it look nice, but I'm also a big crafter so I see no issue on using some cute string and nice paper for a label. If you're making these for someone else I highly recommend make it cute! Making it look good turns a small gift from "aw thanks" to "oh my, this is amazing". Go the extra mile when making things for someone else especially when you care about them. I love to use bottles that comes with a pop top like ones used for water in fancy restaurants. Plus the cap isn't metal so you shouldn't have many issues with erosion if putting an infused vinegar inside. I've also seen many newer styles of mason jars that have a lot cooler looks compared to the classic style. From ones that taper at the top, ones that twist, there's a lot of options out there. If you do make these for gift though, make sure to include use by dates and maybe an ingredient list to prevent any issues from those that consume it!
If you are using the infused oil or vinegar in your own kitchen you don't have to go as fancy. You can keep them in simple mason jars or reuse bottles instead of throwing them out! Of course you still want to label them to remember what's inside, especially if you strain them. I also try to keep a date on everything in my kitchen. It's a general kitchen safety habit but it's very useful when something ends up at the back of the fridge or cabinet and you don't remember when you made them. It's also best to use a darker container to prevent the contents from spoiling as fast. Sometimes this is hard to come by so if you use a clear one just makes sure to keep it tucked away so it's not exposed to light all the time.
I also love to have the added visual of a little bit of what is infused in there. If you use garlic, throw a couple fresh cloves. Rosemary? Throw a nice sprig in there. It adds to the overall look and makes it look like something out of a store. If you do this though, note that it won't last as long. Best to make sure to use clean and fresh to prevent any mold but it can also spoil faster with whole infusions still in there. Make sure to adjust dates for this. Oil with infusions still in it last a week or so. Vinegars would last about 6 months or so.
Now it's my favorite part, recipes! These are a few combinations that I have tried or I know would make a good infusions. At the end of the day try anything you are feeling and see what you like to use in your everyday kitchen!
- Garlic-Oregano-Coriander Olive Oil
This is a great one to use for tomato based dishes. It adds a lot of the same flavors that are common with those types of dishes. Even if you only use some of the flavors or sub other herbs in it it is a great start into the world of infused oils.
- Chili-Marjoram-Rosemary Oil
This is a nice spicy mixture. It adds some heat and some nice herb flavors to any dish. You can also go just chili but I like to add other herbs for a more complex flavor.
- Lavender-Strawberry Oil
This is a great slightly sweeter infused oil. I love to use dehydrated strawberries to get a stronger flavor. It goes great with some desserts as well as your typical dinner.
- Juniper-Thyme Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic has a nice fruity flavor but using juniper berries adds more to it plus has other beneficial properties. The thyme adds a little herbiness that goes with the flavors as well. Try other herbs as well with this combo!
- Rose Balsamic Vinegar
As a fruity vinegar, floral flavors go great with this infusion. You don't need a lot of ingredients to add great flavors. I use a tea grade dried rose but you can also use fresh rose petals if you have a bush at home! Just make sure you don't treat the plant with any chemicals that could harm you if ingested.
- Oregano-Basil-Thyme-Parsley White Vinegar
White vinegar has no flavor except acidity. It is a great vinegar to use if you want to mostly to infuse a flavor into a dish. This blend is a great mixture for Mediterranean dishes. It is a great way to add the herbs flavor without the small pieces that come with it.