Anyone who’s ever made a cup of tea has made an infusion— a simple technique for extracting the essence of an ingredient, such as vanilla beans, tea leaves, or cinnamon sticks, to flavor a liquid. I use infusions to flavor crème anglaise and all sorts of custards, béchamel and other savory sauces, ice creams and sorbets, even drinks.
Herbs, dried fruit, nuts, and spices can all be used to make infusions. Steeped in a liquid and then strained out, these seasonings leave their flavor, and sometimes their color, behind.
A hot liquid makes a more flavorful infusion
Combine the liquid, whether it’s milk, cream, sugar syrup, or even soup stock, with the flavoring ingredient over moderate heat. When the liquid is just shy of a boil, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the mixture steep until the liquid is richly flavored, usually 30 minutes to an hour. Strain out the flavorings and press on them in the strainer to extract all the liquid. Then use the flavored liquid as directed in your recipe.
Experiment with flavors
Beyond what the cookbooks call for, you can personalize your recipes by making infusions with a wide range of ingredients. Try some of these:
• Steep fresh lavender, rosemary, or sprigs of thyme in sugar syrup to make a palatecleansing sorbet.
• Flavor milk with tarragon and roasted garlic to make a savory flan.
• Use star anise, lemongrass, and dried chiles to lend an Asian accent to soup stock.
• Make crème anglaise from milk infused with fresh mint and orange zest to serve with chocolate desserts.
• Infuse cream with freshly grated ginger, crushed coffee beans, or toasted pistachios to make an intensely flavored base for ice cream.
• Add lemon zest and fennel seeds to sugar syrup to make a refreshing poaching liquid for fresh fruit.