Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Revising the basics: Herbal Vinegars

When I first became interested in herbal matters, vinegars did not cross my horizon. Everyone talked about tinctures or teas. It took a very wet summer to introduce me to herbal infused vinegars. I was desperate. My herbs were growing but there was no opportunity to pick them dry. I knew if I picked them wet and tried to dry them I would probably end up with a mouldy mess. Covering them with vinegar seemed a viable alternative.

No-one talked about ensuring a specific concentration of vinegar as they did with alcohol extractions. Indeed nobody seemed interested in herbal vinegars at the time. To me, they appeared as a life-saving way of preserving my harvest.   

Good-quality vinegar is a living, breathing entity. Most medicinal vinegars are made from cider vinegar, but if they are to be used for other purposes such a salad dressing or as a cleaning agent, other types of vinegar can be used. Herbal vinegars are very simple to make and last for several years.

To make infused vinegar from fresh herbs, gather on a dry day once the dew has gone from them and shake them to make sure that you are not going to include ants, flies, spiders or other insects in the mixture. Fill a glass jar with the aerial parts and pour cider vinegar over them. You can include stems if they are not too woody or you might want to use only the leaves and flowers. 

Stir the mixture with a chopstick to bring all the air bubbles to the top (you'll be amazed how air bubbles stick to the leaves) and then screw the lid of the jar on tightly. (This is to ensure that when you pick the jar up regularly to shake it, the lid doesn't fly off and you end up with herbs and vinegar all over the kitchen!)

If the weather does not co-operate with a concept of dryness, pick your herbs damp, shake off the excess water and then leave in a warm place for a time. Using wet herbs will make a less-concentrated vinegar, but you do what you have to do!

If you are in a hot climate, you can use the sun to heat your vinegar. Place the vinegar jar in a sunny window or in a greenhouse where the sun can warm it over a period of time. You don't need to worry about botulism poisoning when you make herbal vinegars because the toxin cannot live in the acid environment. You can strain the vinegar after 3-6 weeks and use it, or leave it as long as you want. You can also use this method to make vinegar from raspberries, blackberries or hawthorn berries.

If you live where the weather is not reliable, it is probably best to infuse your vinegar in a cupboard which is regularly heated either by water pipes, a hot water tank or some kind of radiator. The heat does not have to be strong or continuous, but the vinegar does need to be warmed on a regular basis. I have a cupboard where the hot water pipes from my central heating system warm the air even during the summer time when all the heating is off. This is where all my vinegars are macerated.

Historically, herbal vinegars had a major place in a healer’s repertoire. When the crusaders came back from the Middle East, the major medicinal influence was Avicenna. If you lived in a Norman castle and came from the ruling classes, you would wake up each morning to a steaming drink of herbal vinegar and honey for its health-giving properties. This combination, known as an oxymel has been handed down over the centuries, but has only resumed popularity amongst herbalists in the past fifteen years or so.

The major benefit of using cider vinegar as a medium is its ability to extract minerals from a herb. Nettle is the plant which springs immediately to mind, but other mineral rich herbs such as violet, red clover, hawthorn berry, mugwort and motherwort are others which make a delicious drink. In fact Susan Weed recommends motherwort vinegar as the only way to ingest the plant in a pleasant form!

If you are trying to avoid using alcohol for medical, financial or religious reasons, working with vinegar and honey is a perfectly acceptable alternative alongside dried and fresh plant teas and decoctions and cold water macerations.

Vinegars are useful remedies for sore throats or other minor infections. A general oxymel combination is 2tsp vinegar with 2tsp honey in a mug of boiling water and sip.

Vinegars can also be used as cleansing agents. Infusing any kind of citrus peel in white wine vinegar for three weeks can produce a powerful grease-buster, which when mixed with bicarbonate of soda can be used for any household cleaning task from windows to oven interiors. Try using rosemary vinegar as a final rinse in your hair. This vinegar can also be used to clean your toilet or wash down kitchen surfaces if you want a bacterial wipe. If you are post-menopausal and suffer with dry hair, use fresh elderflower infused vinegar. The floral aroma is wonderful!

Chamomile vinegar can be used for fungal infections or other nasties in confined body spaces such as under arms, behind ears, in the crotch. Remember to dilute the vinegar if the skin is inflamed or sore or the patient may not continue with the treatment after the first application.

Vinegars can also be very helpful in releasing minerals from bones when making stock. Cover any kind of bones with cold water; add peppercorns, a bay leaf, sprigs of thyme and sage and two tablespoons of cider vinegar. Chopped onions, garlic and celery can also add nutrients. Bring to the boil; simmer for 3-5 hours or more. Strain and either use as a base for soups, sauces or stews or freeze until needed.

Making herbal vinegars can become addictive. Once you have made chive, fennel or purple sage vinegar their beautiful crimson colour is entrancing. Elderflower is yellow/cream and rose petal is a very delicate pink. The flavours are completely different as well. 

Try inviting your friends to a vinegar tasting session as an aperitif to a dinner party with freshly made bread. Some will wax lyrical about rose or golden rod while others will refuse to leave until you gift them with enough winter savoury to make their own infused vinegar! If you arrange a tasting session without bread, never serve the vinegars neat as they will be too strong for most palates. A teaspoonful in a shot-glass with water can be gently sipped and savoured with greater enjoyment.

Once you have a selection of vinegars you can mix them into tonics just as you would tinctures. When I was still working in an office, I would take in a bottle of vinegar mixture to make an oxymel which was the first drink of my working day. Most people thought me mad, but just occasionally I would make a drink for a colleague with an intrusive cough. Their reaction was always one of surprise that it worked so well and tasted so good.

Anyone visiting my home is amazed by the number of herbal vinegars lining the shelves of my larder, but they have become an integral part of my life. No cold arrives without a mug of fire cider vinegar with horseradish honey and sore or tired throats are instantly relieved by sage vinegar and any honey which happens to be at hand. It was a wet summer which drove me to vinegar making, now, as we experience another, it is vinegars which again give me hope.

Brown, D The RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses 1995 Dorling Kindersley ISBN 0 7513 0203 1
Bruton-Seal, J & Seal, M Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest & make your own herbal remedies 2008 Merlin Unwin Books Ltd ISBN 978 1 873674 99 4
Edwards, G F Opening Our Wild hearts to the Healing Herbs 2000 Ash Tree Publishing ISBN 1-888123 01 X
Green, J The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook Crossing Press ISBN-13 978 0 89594 990 5
Tierra, L A Kid’s Herb Book for children of all ages 2000 Robert D Reed Publishers
ISBN 8850003 36 6 51995
Wardwell, J The Herbal Home Remedy Book 1998 Versa Press ISBN-13 978 1 58017 016 1
Weed, S New Menopausal Years The Wise Woman Way 2002 Ash Tree Publishing ISBN 1 888123 03 6


Unknown said...

Lovely post Sarah and very timely, making herb vinegars for cleaning with my herb group ladies tomorrow, thanks for the using fresh herbs despite the rain! Shall be remembering that tomorrow.

Debs x

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. I've been thinking about herbal vinegars but didn't know where to begin. Now I do. Thank you x

Comfrey Cottages said...

the way i start my day too Sarah:) I never thought to have an oxymel/vinegar tasting party! Cool idea! xx

Rita M said...

Thanks for sharing this very interesting post with us all Sarah. I'll will give it a try. XXX

fiona said...

Thank you, Sarah! I'm just starting out making vinegars this year and your post has given me lots of new ideas to try. I've been using them mostly on salads, but you have inspired me to try taking them as a drink, too :-)

Blomberg designed fridge said...

I have never thought about a vinegar tasting party! To be honest, I have never really thought of making vinegars. But now you have given me lots of reasons to start on them. It is definitely one creative way of making good use of this wet, wet summer.