By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Lucinda Hutson
A generous splash of vinegar—with its tart and tangy essence and intense burst of pure flavor—can brighten and balance a recipe like nothing else. My kitchen shelves are laden with aromatic vinegars of every kind—from syrupy, aged balsamic to fruity pear, fig, raspberry and blood orange, to rice, sherry, champagne, red wine and, of course, my favorite homemade herbal vinegars.
All vinegars offer versatility, and the concentrated flavors of herbal blends can be used to enhance more than just vinaigrettes and marinades. They perk up pickled vegetables, grated salads and slaws, and creamy dips and salad dressings. They provide the finishing touch to soups, sauces, stews, chili, beans and even salsa. Drizzle some over grilled or roasted veggies, on baked or grilled fish or meats, and use to deglaze pans to create distinctive sauces. You can even use them to remedy culinary near-disasters! Too bland? Too salty? Too sweet? A generous glug may just bring that dish back to life. In fact, vinegars are so important that I devoted an entire chapter to making them in my book, The Herb Garden Cookbook.
By June, our Central Texas gardens are brimming with fresh herbs—oregano spills over pathways, a plethora of basil abounds and some herbs like dill and cilantro have already bolted and set seed. Making herbal vinegars is a perfect way to preserve the season’s harvest, and in the midst of winter, a generous dose of summer’s herb-infused vinegar on roasted vegetables, or stirred into a simmering marinara, promises spring to come!
Herbal vinegars make lovely gifts, too—a veritable garden within a bottle. For inspiration, displayed are pretty bottles of vinegars such as Texas Cider Sage ’n Cinnamon (great with wild game); Basil-Chile-Garlic, a heady combination of fragrant basil infused in red wine vinegar and piqued with hot red peppers; and Bouquet Garni, champagne vinegar steeped with fresh dill, salad burnet (the cucumber-scented herb), lilac-colored chive blossoms and a decorative golden umbel of dill seed.
To package your own treasured alchemy, try reusing old wine bottles or look for interesting ones at import shops. Add a fresh bouquet of herbs, dried cayenne, garlic cloves impaled on a bamboo skewer or a spiral of citrus peel within each bottle. Tie the top with raffia, attach a homemade label, delight your friends…and yourself.
Lucinda’s Favorite Herbal Vinegars
- TEXAS TARRAGON (Mexican mint marigold infused in apple cider or white wine vinegar). A pungent, anise flavor that is delicious with honey mustard as a dressing, as a marinade for wild game, chicken and pork, or a lively ingredient in homemade mayonnaise or béarnaise sauce.
- MEDITERRANEAN MARINADE (oregano, basil and rosemary infused in red wine vinegar with chiles and garlic). A perky salad vinegar, a beef or pork marinade, great with stews, beans, tomato sauces, and chili, and a drizzle for roasted veggies. Skewer dried red cayenne peppers and blanched whole garlic cloves on wooden skewers for a pretty presentation.
- GARDEN MINT (fresh mint infused in apple cider or white wine vinegar with spiral of lemon or orange and optional dried cayenne pepper). A natural for mint sauce, fruit salads and lamb marinade, but makes a scrumptious salad vinegar or drizzle for asparagus, peas and green beans. A tasty “finish” for chicken, tomato or pea soups, or gazpacho!
- GINGERED THAI BASIL (Thai basil infused in rice wine vinegar flavored with fresh ginger and pink peppercorns). Garnet-colored and gorgeous over avocado halves, with stir-fries, seafood or chicken, and mango salad.
- LOVELY LEMON (a bouquet of lemon balm, basil, verbena and thyme with spiral of lemon peel). A quintessential essence for vinaigrettes and marinades, and delicious over grilled foods and roasted veggies.