Gift-giving can add undue stress to the celebratory nature of December. Hunting for something commercially available for each and every family member and friend is not only exhausting, it is expensive and unending. When I reach the end of another year my brain is steeped in memories (both sweet and savory) from the past twelve months and I like to honor those thoughts with something equally potent to give as a gift. For my money, the best thing to pass out as we barrel toward the holidays is a simple infusion.
Infusions are easily personalized, you could very well make a few different batches and hand out various treats to your family but I like to brew one big batch of something flavorful, label it with the particular year it was made, and then give it away with a bow on top. Over the years I have infused many different liquids, and I will now look at the options with you.
To begin, an infusion is the diffusion of flavorful chemical compounds from something dense and aromatic into a neutral, liquid, base. We can infuse nearly anything that is liquid, my favorites are olive oil, vinegar, and alcohol. Looking at each individually reveals the nuances that will make you an infusion professional.
Let’s start with alcohol (it’s always best to start the night off with a drink, don’t you think?). The most common infusion on the market is vanilla extract. I know Sophie has made some here before, and it’s worth noting that you can do this at home and it makes an extraordinary gift. Simply slip a few split vanilla beans into a bottle and cover them with vodka. Shake daily and in about a month you’ll have your own vanilla extract.
But vanilla isn’t the only thing we can do with alcohol. When it’s cold and snowy outside I turn to the darker spirits in my cabinet, particularly whiskey and bourbon. A few years ago I put together a wintry bourbon infusion with carrots and caraway. It sounds strange, but the final product is remarkable. Think about it this way: bourbon has the power to take both VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) and sugars from the ingredients you add. In this case, it takes a heady dose of volatile oils from the toasted caraway seeds, and then a lovely balance of sugar from the carrot strips. This whiskey is not meant for mixing into other cocktails, it’s a sipping drink to be enjoyed by the fire.
Alcoholic infusions are examples of cold infusing. We don’t heat either the alcohol or the ingredients added. Alcohol would evaporate if we heated it and the flavorful additions don’t need to be dried out because the alcohol acts as a wonderful preservative, keeping them from spoiling. Cold infusions are great for extracting polysaccharides and VOC’s (though it takes some time)
Next up, infused oil! This is what I like to call a half-hot infusion. I don’t heat the oil, though some cooks do, because when you heat oil you begin the breakdown of triglycerides which can lead to off flavors in the finished product. But, in order to be safe, we need to heat the ingredients going into the oil in order to dry them out and remove their water content. Water is an excellent growing ground for bacteria and because oil is not a very strong preservative, it won’t kill the things that might thrive in stasis. When making herb infused oil I wash the herbs well and then lay out the stems on a baking tray and heat them at 200 degrees until they’re dry to the touch. The same goes for lemon oil: wash the lemon, zest the lemon onto a baking try, and then heat the zest until it’s dry.
Add those dried infusions to empty, clean bottles and cover them with oil. Make sure the oil covers the ingredients completely to create an oxygenates environment.
Finally, we have infused vinegar. This is a tried-and-true hot infusion. I warm the vinegar in a sauce pan until just below simmering, and then pour it over flavorful ingredients in jars. In this case, vinegar is an excellent preservative (much like the alcohol) and is strong enough to be unfriendly to bacteria. This year I made two vinegars: one with dried cranberries and another with dried chilies and lemongrass. If you’re scratching your head and wondering what these might be used for, trust me when I tell you that these will forever change your salad dressing game.
Of course, the most obvious of infusions is the humble tea bag. When I drop a bag into hot water, we can see the water drawing out both color and flavor, it is an excellent way to teach kids how infusions work. As for making one of your own, I like to tie little sachets of mulling spices to hand out with apple cider to friends at the end of the year. Into a square of cheesecloth I tie a few cinnamon sticks, some star anise, dried orange peel, cloves, and a little bunch of dried cranberries. Drop this sachet into simmering cider and let it steep until fragrant!
Once you’ve made any of these, it’s best to keep the jars in cool, dark places. For even better results, once the flavor is to your liking, strain out the solid ingredients and store just the infused liquid.