A great way to extend the life of your summer herbs is to make herb-flavored vinegar. The high acidity of vinegar extracts flavor from the herbs without any cooking, chopping, or fussing. The acidity also means that an herb-infused vinegar will keep indefinitely without spoiling. And herb vinegars are a versatile addition to your pantry: Use them in salad dressings and sauces, to perk up soups or stews, or to liven up broiled chicken or steamed vegetables and fish.
The best vinegars to use for infusing are white-wine or Champagne vinegar. Although many books on preserving recommend using distilled white vinegar, one whiff (or taste, if you dare) is all you need to determine that this harsh, clear vinegar is not something you want to cook with. Instead, the mellower and more complex flavors of white-wine or Champagne vinegar are ideal. Red-wine and apple-cider vinegars also work well, as long as you realize that their stronger flavors might mask the flavor of subtle herbs.
Rinse and dry the herbs before adding them to the vinegar. If you find any pests nestled in the leaves, give the sprigs a swish in salted water first, and then rinse and dry them. Drop the herbs into a clean glass bottle and pour in the vinegar. Use about 1 cup of herb sprigs per quart of vinegar. Seal the bottle with a cork or cap and set it aside to steep in a dark place for at least two weeks and as long as six weeks. The timing depends on the type and quantity of herbs and the strength of their flavors (fresh garden herbs are more potent than those from the supermarket). Sample the vinegar after two weeks and, if it doesn’t have much flavor, set it aside for a few more weeks.
To strain or not is a question of aesthetics. Once the vinegar has the flavor you want, you can certainly strain it if you don’t like the look of washed-out herbs floating around in your vinegar. Use a fine-mesh strainer or a coffee filter. Vinegars flavored with edible flowers of any sort (chive, nasturtium, or any herb blossoms) tend to look rather hazy from the pollen and are much prettier after straining. (Flowers do add a lovely blush color to white-wine vinegars.) When giving an herb vinegar as a gift, I like to strain it and then add a single fresh sprig of herb just to indicate the flavor.
Good herbs for making vinegar
• chives (use blossoms and leaves)
• dill (use seeds and leaves)
• mint (combine with orange zest)
• nasturtium flowers (nice with dill, too)
• rosemary (combine with thyme, lavender, savory, and a garlic clove for a Provençal mix)
• other additions: citrus zest, a split shallot, a clove of garlic, a few peppercorns or coriander seeds.