Friday, October 8, 2010

Herbal Oils Help To Preserve The Bounty Of Your Garden

What do you do when you have more herbs to harvest in your garden than you can deal with?  You can eat a lot, dry them, freeze them or make herbal oils.  Each of those present you with more options, but let's think about herbal oils.

I've tried a few, and so have you.  They might have been purchased, received as gifts, or rubbed on by your masseuse.  I can't remember a single one that wasn't delightful.  The not-so-secret secret is that you can make them yourself.  Herbal oils help to preserve the bounty of your garden, are wonderful for cooking, easy to make, attractive on the shelf, and make great gifts.

There are a gazillion-willion possible ingredients and uses for herbal oils.  I can't begin to present specific recipes and applications for you to try, so I'll stick to the basics.  For the sake of simplicity, let's make cayenne pepper oil.

You'll need a sterilized bottle and cap or stopper, dried red peppers that are small enough to fit through the bottle-neck, and oil.  As I mentioned in my article, Pesto Is The Solution..., nothing preserves the essence of fresh herbs like olive oil.  But olive oil isn't the best oil for every occasion.  In fact, lighter oils and those with less pronounced flavor tend to highlight the taste of the herbs.  For sake of economy and usefulness, start with canola oil.  It's healthy and versatile.

Here are the steps:
  • Gather a few small dried red peppers.  Six or eight will do.  If you don't have any on hand, you can purchase some from your local grocery store.  You'll find them among the spices or in the Mexican food section.
  • Sterilize your bottle.  The USDA has published guidelines on how to do that.  You can find them on page 10 of this document:  Guide 1: Principles of Home Canning.  After sterilizing, let them drain and dry. 
  • Place the peppers on a cutting board and whack them a little bit to bruise them.  I use a small meat tenderizing hammer.  Just break the skin; don't pound them to pieces.
  • Stuff the peppers in the bottle.
  • Heat the oil in a small stainless steel saucepan on low temperature until it's a little warm.
  • Pour the oil into the bottle.
  • Let the contents cool.
  • Close the bottle tightly with a lid or cork.
  • Set the bottle aside in a cool place away from light for about a week. 
  • Use it.
You may be asking, "How shall I use this pepper oil?"  The answer is that you should use it as you would for any recipe that requires some oil and hot pepper.  You can also use it for vinaigrettes with a touch of heat.

You may be asking, "How long will this oil last?"  Your homemade oil won't last as long as commercially processed herbal oils.  It should be good for a couple of months.  If you remove the peppers from the oil, it will last longer.  The reason is that the peppers, though dried, still contain a little water. If the water weren't there, your peppers would be dust or less.  Water harbors life-giving fluid for little creatures that can spoil your oil.  But if you remove the peppers from the oil, your bottle won't look so pretty.  "What to do?"  Use it or refrigerate it.  If you have trouble using a larger bottle of oil, make your herbal oils in smaller batches and store in smaller bottles.

There are many different oils to choose from.  Canola, peanut, safflower and sunflower are good choices.  Remember what I said before about lighter-tasting oils highlighting herbal flavors.

Popular herbs and spices for oil infusions include basil, bay, cayenne, chives, cilantro, dill, garlic, mint, marjoram, oregano, peppercorn, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme.  For massage oils, consider eucalyptus, lavender and dried citrus peels.  Experiment with different combinations.  You'll have great fun.

Herbal oils make lovely gifts.  Attractive bottles enhance the appearance.  You can also decorate the bottles by dipping the necks in colored wax, applying descriptive labels in calligraphy, wrapping with attractive fabric, tying with ribbon or raffia.  A gift card including a suggested recipe will be appreciated.  The recipients may think their gifts are too beautiful to use, but remind them that the herbal oil won't last forever.

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