Making herb-infused vinegars is one of my favorite springtime activities. So many spring herbs lend themselves well to this kind of preparation: nettle, dandelion, violet flowers, chive blossoms, red clover, and more. After a long winter reading and dreaming and using up last year’s herbs, it’s exciting to be using fresh herbs once again. (Of course, if you don’t have access to some of these herbs to use fresh, you can also use them dried, like I did in the photos below when I made a batch over the winter for a friend!)
Herb-infused vinegars are one of the easiest herbal preparations to make: all you need is vinegar, fresh or dried herbs, a container in which to store the mixture while it macerates, and a few basic kitchen utensils. Making an herb-infused vinegar is exactly like making a tincture–in fact, acetic tinctures (aka herb-infused vinegars) were once just as common as alcohol tinctures. These days, alcohol tinctures are more popular as they have a longer shelf life and can extract a greater range of plant constituents (more on that in a moment), but herb-infused vinegars still have their place in the home medicine cabinet–and in the ranks of culinary condiments.
In general, it’s best to use a high-quality apple cider vinegar (ACV for short) for your herb-infused vinegars. Apple cider vinegar has its own health benefits: it’s used to improve digestion, lower blood sugar and blood pressure, and promote heart health. It’s also an effective antimicrobial. For herb-infused vinegars that are primarily intended for culinary use, white wine or red wine vinegars may be used. White wine vinegar is a particularly good vehicle for infusing colorful herbs like chive blossoms or violets since it takes on the color of the extracted pigments. Avoid distilled white vinegar as it is sometimes derived from petroleum.
If you choose to use apple cider vinegar, you’ll find yourself faced with two more choices: filtered vs. unfiltered and raw vs. pasteurized. Raw, unfiltered ACV (like Bragg’s, pictured here) can contain bits of the vinegar mother. Ordinarily this isn’t a problem, but sometimes those bits will start growing again and will ferment your vinegar into something watery and insipid. And it can be a little off-putting to see a tiny little mother floating around in your bottle of vinegar. Pasteurized, filtered vinegar won’t have this problem–but it also won’t have the same kind of living enzymes that raw vinegar will. There is no right or wrong answer as to which type of apple cider vinegar to use, so go with what makes you comfortable.
Herb-infused vinegars have a shelf life of six months to several years. Some herbalists say that they can have a shelf-life of up to seven years! Since I use raw, unfiltered vinegar, I try to use my vinegars up within a year so I don’t run the risk of the mother regrowing. Herb-infused vinegars can be stored at room temperature, but refrigeration helps preserve their flavor and color (and slows down the mother in raw, unfiltered vinegars).
The great thing about herb-infused vinegars is that they’re easily adapted to the ingredients on hand. They can be made with either fresh or dried herbs, or even a combination of both. Fresh herbs tend to give the vinegar a lighter, more delicate flavor while dried herbs impart a stronger, deeper flavor. You can make an herb-infused vinegar with just one herb, or mix and match and infuse multiple herbs in the same batch.
Herbs are full of phytochemicals that can provide us with health benefits, but the challenge lies in extracting them from plant material and into a medium that can be assimilated by the human body. Some of these constituents are water-soluble (great for teas), some are fat-soluble (great for salves and oils), and some are alcohol- and vinegar-soluble (great for tinctures). Some vinegar-soluble constituents include tannins, acids, saponins, sugars, bitters (partially), vitamins, and minerals. All of these constituents are also soluble in water, which is, of course, present in vinegar.
Nutrient-rich herbs like nettle, dandelion, red clover, red raspberry leaf, yellow dock, and chickweed are high in vitamins and minerals. All are great choices for infused vinegars and can be a way to get easily-assimilable vitamins and minerals into your daily diet. I particularly enjoy nettle and dandelion vinegars. Dandelion vinegar can also be used as a bitter, taken before mealtimes or used as a dressing on a salad before the main dish. Many of the above herbs are considered spring tonics–common springtime herbs that help support liver function and stimulate digestion. Since apple cider vinegar also promotes gut health, herb-infused vinegars are a perfect pairing if you struggle with sluggish digestion after a long winter of rich food and few leafy greens. (Crushed fennel seed can also be a nice addition to an infused vinegar meant for digestive support.)
From a culinary perspective, nearly any herb can be used to make an herb-infused vinegar. Some popular options are garlic, rosemary, oregano, thyme, hot peppers, tarragon, dill, and basil. Herbs with strong antimicrobial activity, like oregano and thyme, can be infused in vinegars and taken at the onset of winter illnesses like colds and respiratory infections. They’re even better mixed with honey, which yields a preparation called an oxymel. But more on that in another post!
The number one, most important thing to remember when making herb-infused vinegars is this: do not use any reactive metal bowls, utensils, or containers when prepping and storing your vinegar. Aluminum and copper are the most common reactive metals. Vinegar corrodes reactive metals, so only use non-reactive containers and utensils (stainless steel, enamel, glass, wood, plastic). If you store your vinegar in a Mason jar with a metal lid while it’s macerating, be sure to place a piece of wax paper over the mouth of the jar before capping it. Many people choose to use plastic lids on their Mason jars, but I find that they don’t usually get as good of a seal and tend to leak when I shake the jars during maceration.
Aside from that one important caution, your supply list couldn’t be simpler: vinegar, fresh or dried herbs, a cutting board and knife for chopping fresh herbs, measuring cups, a sterilized container with a lid, a wooden chopstick or bamboo skewer, wax paper (if needed), masking tape, and a sharpie. For straining and bottling, you will need a fresh sterilized container with a lid, a stainless steel or nylon mesh strainer, a glass bowl, a piece of muslin or cheesecloth, and a fresh label.
Start with a clean jar–you can sterilize it in boiling water as you would for canning, but I often just swish a few tablespoons of vinegar around the inside of the jar and pour it out before proceeding.
The amount of herb used to make an infused vinegar can vary. If you just want a slightly flavored vinegar, you can use less; if you want a strong and/or medicinal vinegar, you can use more. The ratio provided in the recipe below–1 cup of dried herb to 2 cups of vinegar–is fairly comfortable and easy to pack into a pint jar. You can adjust your ratio to taste or to suit your container. If you prefer to measure visually, simply pack your jar full of fresh or dried herb and then add enough vinegar to cover the herb.
Add your herb to the jar, and then add your vinegar. Some people prefer to very gently heat their vinegar before pouring it into the jar to facilitate extraction, while others avoid heating it for fear of reducing its health benefits. I’ve tried both ways and I like to warm the vinegar when I’m using dried herb, but find it unnecessary when using fresh herb. Dried herbs tend to float, so use a wooden chopstick or bamboo skewer to submerge the herb until it’s all wet and any trapped air bubbles have been released.
Cap the jar (including wax paper if using a metal lid) and label it immediately. Masking tape and a sharpie works perfectly well for this, but you can also print one on label paper for a more aesthetically pleasing look. Write the name of the preparation (“______ Vinegar”), the ingredients, the date made, and the date it will be ready. You can also add any other information you like, including moon phases, source of the herb used, what the vinegar will be used for, etc.
Store the jar out of the light, but in a place where you will remember to check on it and give it a shake on a regular basis.
If your jar is packed very full, be sure to check on it the day after you make it–if any of the herb is no longer submerged (both dried and fresh herbs can expand after they’re introduced to the liquid), top the jar off with more vinegar and recap. I find that shaking the jar every 2-3 days helps keep everything well-incorporated.
Allow the vinegar and herb mixture to macerate for 2-4 weeks before straining and storing. For straining, I like to use a clean piece of muslin fabric inside of a stainless steel mesh strainer. When you strain your vinegar, be sure to squeeze or press out as much liquid as possible from the spent herb (or “marc”)–that’s where the good stuff is hiding! Compost the marc after pressing.
Some folks like to strain and bottle their vinegar, and then add a piece of fresh or dried herb–like a thyme or rosemary sprig–to the bottle for decorative purposes. Don’t forget to make a new label–with all the same information–for your storage container.
If you’ve never tasted an herb-infused vinegar before, much less made one, I highly recommend starting out with a small batch–you can halve the recipe below to fit a half-pint jar. Once you know you like it and will use it up, you can always make a full-sized or even double batch.
Herb-infused vinegars can be taken on their own as a tonic, but they shine as salad dressings, as a condiment for cooked greens, in place of regular vinegar in a recipe, in marinades and barbeque sauces, in the brine for home-canned pickles, as a refreshing summertime drink with club soda and a little sweetener, used to make an oxymel, as an astringent for external wounds and inflammations, and much more!
I’ll be writing another post about making chive blossom vinegar later this spring, because it’s one of my favorites and it looks amazing. And then in the late summer I’ll revisit infused vinegars as the first step of the oxymel process, which is one of my indispensable herbal preparations for winter wellness.
sterilized pint jar and lid
1 cup dried nettle leaf (substitute 1 cup fresh chopped nettle leaves if desired)
2 cups apple cider vinegar
Pack the herb into the pint jar.
Add vinegar to pint jar, being sure that the liquid covers the herb. Stir the mixture with a bamboo skewer or wooden chopstick to release any hair bubbles and to ensure the herb is evenly coated. Top off with additional vinegar if necessary.
Place a square of wax paper underneath the lid and screw on tight.
Place the jar of vinegar in a dark place, like a cabinet or pantry, for 2-4 weeks, shaking the jar occasionally to ensure the contents are well-distributed.
Strain the herb from the vinegar and pour into a sterilized bottle. Store refrigerated for best flavor and use within 6-12 months.
References: The Science and Art of Herbology, Lesson 4 by Rosemary Gladstar. The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook by James Green.