How to make flavor-infused olive oil
Looking for a great gift idea? Infused oils are easy to make at home and delicious to use as dips and dressings.
Olive trees are a beautiful part of the Mediterranean's natural landscape, having grown there for thousands of years, but it is because of their fruit, and what we can make from it, that we talk about them in the kitchen.
People around the world use oil made from pressed olives for cooking, as a dip for fresh bread and for dressing salads. Doctors and nutritionists also recommend olive oil for adding healthy fats to a lower-cholesterol diet.
Olive oils from different regions all have subtle flavor differences, but any can be flavored at home in a process called infusing.
Infused olive oils are usually about one-third to twice the cost of their plain brethren, and it can be a challenge to use a full-sized bottle of the stuff. Fortunately, it's incredibly easy to make your own – in whatever size glass container you want. While ordinary, fine-virgin olive oil is best for use in most recipes, infused oils should be made with extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO, which is great for making uniquely flavorful salad dressings or simply for drizzling over fresh veggies.
How do you make your own infused oil?
Start with a fresh bottle of good-quality – ideally organic – EVOO, and some clean, completely dry glass containers with cork or rubber-sealed tops. Avoid metal tops as they can affect the flavor of the oil, though the tops of Ball jars and other glass jars that have held food, which are lined with a nonreactive coating, should be fine.
It's important that the jars and herbs are very dry – that's because any water that gets into the oil can bring bacteria with it, which will cause your oil to spoil. Being sure that jars are very clean and totally dry is key to making oil that you'll be able to keep around or give as housewarming, holiday or other gifts.
Next, choose your herbs; easy starters include rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano. Rinse whatever herb you choose well, and then let it air dry (putting them in the sunshine will dry them more quickly), being sure they don't have any kind of residual moisture on them before you use them. You might want to do this step a day in advance so the herbs will have time to dry thoroughly.
Make sure herbs are cut the right size for the container you are using – you don't want long pieces sticking up out of the olive oil or out the top of the container so you can't close it.
What quantity of herbs should you use? A good guideline is to fill your bottle with 1/4 to 1/3 with herbs, and 3/4 to 2/3 EVOO. Really, there is no hard-and-fast rule – go with your instinct and experiment. Anna Brones, author of " The Culinary Cyclist," said, "I rarely measure in my kitchen (except when I am testing recipes for cookbooks of course!), so it totally depends, but I taste along the way."
Then, place herbs in the bottom of the jar or container you are using, ensuring that when you do pour the olive oil in, it will completely cover leaves and/or stems. Use a funnel and fill the bottle close to the top.
Remove the funnel, seal the bottle tight, and leave it to rest for at least 2-3 weeks (though it can be much longer, like a couple of months). You can speed the process up by leaving it in a warm (not hot) place. Over time, the flavor will get stronger, and how potent you like your flavored oil is up to you. Feel free to taste the oil along the way – remember not to put a spoon or your fingers into the oil, but pour it out to taste.
When it's at the potency you like, simply remove the herbs (the simplest way is to pour the now-infused oil out into another bottle) and compost them. Or, you can leave the herbs in if you like the look of it and are happy with a stronger flavor – remember, you can always dilute it by adding more plain EVOO later.
Want an infused oil for tonight's dinner? Brones says it's easy. "You warm up chopped basil in olive oil, let it steep for a bit and then strain the basil out. That way you get an infused oil you can use right away instead of waiting. Call it infusion in a time crunch."
Once you have tried infusing something simple, you can get more adventurous, mixing herbs, or adding spices and seeds. "I like combinations with herbs like rosemary and thyme, but I also like to play around with things like coriander and cumin seeds," said Brones.
Want to add garlic, peppers, or lemon to your oil? Most chefs recommend making it on-the-spot to be eaten right away – using the quick infusion method above that Brones suggests. You can keep it in the fridge for up to a week, but this type of oil (despite images and decorative bottles to the contrary) is likely to spoil due to the water content in the foods.
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