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Garden Infusions

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The best part of a meal at a nice Italian restaurant, especially when you show up hungry, is that basket of warm homemade bread. Come to think of it, it can also be the worst part of your meal, since when it comes out, you fall upon it like a ravenous beast, and end up having to take ¾ of your entrée home with you in a box because you shoved three baskets of bread into your face. You’re usually given a plate or a small bottle of infused olive oil for adding that extra punch to your bread, and that’s what really makes it.

Infused olive oil is bursting with flavor—commonly rosemary, thyme, sage, or pepper—and when it comes to finishing your breads, soups, pasta dishes, and meats, there’s nothing better. You can purchase really tasty infused artisan olive oils for cooking, but it can be expensive, and you are limited to what you can find in stores. Luckily, creating your own oil infusions is very simple, and it will allow you to experiment with any flavor combination you can think of, and using ingredients harvested from your own garden.

Olive oil isn’t the only thing you can infuse in your own kitchen. Using similar methods, you can infuse vinegar to pair with the oil you’ve made, honey, and water. Infusing liquor is an excellent way to add a kick to your cocktails, and create totally original drinks for your celebrations.

When it comes to what you can put into your creations, you can experiment with any clean dry herbs and spices. For your safety and the safety of those who might be tasting your infusions, stick to dried ingredients only, particularly with olive oil. Using moist ingredients, like garlic or citrus, can increase your risk of developing some pretty nasty bacteria in your infusion that can make you and your guests incredibly sick. If you have a food dehydrator, dry out moist ingredients completely before you add them to olive oil. While it is possible to add moist ingredients to olive oil, put it in the fridge, and use it up immediately, you are safest just using only dehydrated materials (we don’t want you to get sick any more than you do!). Give all of your infusing ingredients a good rinsing to remove any dirt or contaminants before dehydration. If you don’t have a food dehydrator, you can sun dry or oven dry your ingredients. Moisture-free is key.

You will need several air-tight glass bottles, jars, or containers to store your infusion while the magic is happening. If you are infusing water or liquor, you can use infusion jars with spigots so you can serve right from the jar when it’s ready. For honey, you can use mason canning jars, and there are loads of decorative bottles in which you can infuse oil and vinegar, especially if you are creating gifts. Just be sure that your containers have a tight seal, and that you’ve cleaned them thoroughly before use.

To create the best infusion possible, make sure that you use good quality stuff—after all, your fresh homegrown herbs, fruits, and vegetables won’t matter much if your oil, spirits, or honey aren’t very tasty to begin with.

At this point, making the infusion is simple: bruise your botanicals to better release the plant oils, add the desired amount to your infusion container, and add the liquid to be infused. Seal your container, and place it in your pantry, in a cabinet, or some other cool dry place where it can soak undisturbed. How long you will let your infusion sit depends on your taste, the ingredients you are steeping, and what you are infusing. Keep in mind that the longer you let some things sit, the more potent they’ll become. Cayenne, habanero, or jalapeño peppers from the garden are delicious when infused into oil or tequila, but if you let them sit too long, the slight spicy kick that you desire will become lava hot. If you are infusing with green or jasmine tea, leaving your infusion sitting too long will cause the tea to get that over-steeped bitter flavor. So, occasionally, test out your infusion to see how it’s coming along. When you are satisfied with the flavor, you can strain out the solids and rebottle the liquid.

How about a little lavender vanilla bean honey? Maybe an ice cold lemon and mint infused water? Give your bloody Mary a boost with a rosemary, basil, and pepper infused vodka. And, don’t forget to keep that classic Italian spice infused olive oil around for your own irresistible homemade bread. The combinations are endless!