A gift of overripe strawberries on a day too hot for canning opened Lisa Frey to a new method of preserving. The resulting elixir was worthy of bestowing and serving on special occasions.
Shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, can make for gourmet gifts that cost just pennies to produce in home kitchens. Similarly, infused vinegars look and taste fancy but are practical ways to use an herb or vegetable garden’s excess, say food preservation experts in Southern Oregon.
“It’s really only limited to your imagination,” says Vickie Belknap, Oregon State University Master Food Preserver.
A fellow Master Food Preserver, Frey says, “You can get as creative or as crazy as you want.”
The craft beverage craze of the past decade has customized shrubs with numerous herbs, spices and other seasonings. Mashing a pound of ripe fruit with two cups of sugar, then adding up to two cups of vinegar is the basic recipe. “People use them for cocktails or mocktails,” says Frey.
Popular in Colonial America, shrubs preserved fruit before refrigeration. Centuries earlier in Britain, shrubs were regarded as health tonics, including by sailors who drank them to prevent scurvy. Acidulating water to make it safe to drink dates to ancient Babylonian times. “It’s got a long history,” says Frey.
Cooks short on time, however, can make shrubs and flavored vinegars in minutes, compared with dedicating the better part of a day to jams, jellies and other canning recipes. Choosing commercially manufactured vinegars ensures consistent, nearly failsafe quality. The gamut of types, from white and cider vinegars to wine and rice vinegars, can be used, each imparting a slightly different flavor and aesthetic.
Clear, white vinegar is a good choice for delicate herbs and flowers that tint the vinegar with bright hues. Chive blossoms, which turn white vinegar a gorgeous pink, are a favorite of Master Food Preservers, says Belknap. Amber-colored cider vinegar blends well with dark berries.
Allow herbs, fruits and vegetables to steep in a vinegar base for at least 10 days or as long as a month for optimal flavor before using. If the vinegar tastes too strong, it can be diluted with water; if flavors aren’t apparent enough, let it steep longer.
Strain the vinegar through a damp cheesecloth, coffee filter or jelly bag one or more times until no cloudiness remains. Discard the steeped ingredients, but consider adding back a sprig of herbs, a few pieces of fruit or cloves of garlic before sealing and storing in a cool, dark place.
Belknap likes vinegar spiked with dill, garlic and peppercorns as the base for salad dressings or to add “zing” to a soup or sauce. Vinegar flavored with vanilla beans can be drizzled on fruit to enhance sweetness and prevent browning, says Belknap. “Always, a sprinkle of vinegar never hurts anything,” she says.
“Even if it doesn’t taste good, you’ve spent very little money,” she adds. “If you don’t like it, pour it on your weeds!”
Frey agrees that the retail markup on vinegars and shrubs is incentive to make them oneself. Thrifty cooks also can reuse decorative bottles for packaging vinegars and shrubs for gift-giving.
Just don’t try to replicate the method by infusing foods into oil, which promotes the growth of bacteria that can cause serious illness, say Master Food Preservers. Vinegar’s high acid keeps pathogens at bay.