Bottling The Essence Of Summer

Herb & Fruit Infused Vinegars

Summer’s fruit fest makes me a little crazy. Even though my modest back-deck garden supplies my daily salads and fills my daily breakfast bowl with berries, I find myself bringing home gorgeous flats of local fruit just because it’s so dang beautiful. Once I’ve worked through the jam-and-ice-cream stage, I fill the freezer, but  that doesn’t mean I stop collecting fruit. Happily, I can move into the oil-and-vinegar stage of summer, making savory flavorings to use when summer’s just a memory.

Among my favorites are fruit-, herb-, and vegetable-based vinegars. Depending on how you construct them, vinegars flavors can range from delicate and evocative to in your face bold. I usually make small batches when experimenting, because it’s a drag to waste lovely ingredients if things go south. However, I always write down what I’m doing as I do it, since it’s also a drag to make something fabulous and not be able to reproduce it.

Choosing Your Base Vinegar

Obviously, your base vinegar has a lot to do with the quality of your final product. It’s most effective to use a vinegar with mild character, since you want to showcase the fruit and/or herbs. Those bulk gallon jugs of white vinegar are best used for cleaning windows, since the brash, harsh vinegar can overwhelm delicate herbs. Though I’ve made some very pleasing flavored vinegars using red or white wine vinegars or plain rice vinegar, I often choose organic apple cider vinegar, which has body and snap as well as a hint of natural sweetness that balances that tart sourness.

As a rule, flavored vinegars are made by heating vinegar with fruit, herbs, or vegetables such as chili peppers or garlic. These are allowed to infuse for several days (or even weeks), and must be strained and rebottled before using. Keep flavored vinegars in a cool, dim place, not a sunny window, since the heat and light can cloud the vinegar and may promote bacterial growth. Always heat vinegar in a non-reactive saucepan (made of stainless steel or enamel).

A Pleasingly Playful Approach

Though I always make a batch or two of raspberry and blueberry vinegar (see below), I also like to branch out a bit. Recent experiments involved cucumber/lemon verbena vinegar, black tomato/shallot vinegar, and nectarine/basil vinegar. All were lovely, but my current favorite is peppery tart cherry vinegar (though the sweet cherry version is also wonderful, especially in fruity or green salads).

As always, the recipes below can be varied freely depending on your own taste preferences. Making the vinegars is a lot of fun, but some patience is required before you really know what you’ve got. Most will need some time to mellow, and all must be strained through cheesecloth and decanted into sterile bottles when they reach the stage you like best. Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Dusky, Delicious Tomato Vinegar

This rich, marvelously complex vinegar relies on ripe, black-skinned tomatoes. Thanks to those dusky skins, these luscious nuggets offer generous amounts of anthocyanins, the phytonutrients that make blueberries a superfood. Though I used juicy little INDIGO Cherry Drops (my first tomatoes to ripen), you can use Indigo Rose or any black-skinned tomato.

Black Tomato/Shallot Vinegar

2 cups halved ripe black-skinned Cherry Drops tomatoes
2 cups red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
1/3 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons chopped shallots

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

The Crispest Cukes

For this cucumber vinegar, I used a plump Japanese ‘burpless’ cucumber called Giga Bite. Each of these crisp, crunchy critters gets 6-8 inches long, and I eat them skin and all, scrubbing a bit to remove the fine little bristles first.

Cucumber/Lemon Verbena Vinegar

2 cups coarsely chopped cucumber
2 cups plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons chopped lemon verbena

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Simply Sweet Or Tart & Peppery

Cherries have such interesting flavors that you can tilt them easily from sweet to savory. Try adding a little fresh tarragon or lavender, peppercorns or grains of paradise, curry paste or chilies….

Sweet Cherry/Lavender Vinegar

2 cups pitted sweet cherries, chopped
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons fresh lavender

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out (the cherries are awesome in salads, by the way. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Peppery Tart Cherry Vinegar

1 cup pitted tart cherries
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons peppercorns

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out (again, save the cherries for something fun; they taste awesome). Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Nectarine Basil Vinegar

2 cups diced ripe nectarines
1-1/2 cups plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
1/3 cup chopped basil

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Raspberry Vinegar

2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
1-1/2 cups red wine vinegar or rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey (preferably raspberry honey)

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low , cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Blueberry Vinegar

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
2 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon grated lemon or orange zest
1/4 cup sugar or honey

Combine all ingredients with 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low , cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

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2 Responses to Bottling The Essence Of Summer

  1. Jess says:

    Is it imperative to include the sugars/honey etc.? Or can I omit the added sugars?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      You can leave out the added sweeteners, though they are helpful preservatives, so always keep plain versions refrigerated to avoid bacterial issues.

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