The herb garden is just too abundant right now, and I'm barely keeping up. I've already dried several kinds of herbs, and have more to go. Oregano and tarragon have seen two harvests so far, and I'm about to harvest thyme again. Sage, mint, lavender, lemon thyme, and basil are ready, too.
And it's time to make the herbal vinegars. These make beautiful gifts and add pizzazz to home-made vinaigrette. They save time, because the herbal flavors are already right in the vinegar and don't have to be added when you make the salad dressing. Herbal vinegars are also wonderful in marinades or basting sauces.
There are two basic methods for extracting the flavor of the herbs. You can place the fresh herbs in a jar and pour vinegar over them, letting them stand in a sunny window for a couple of weeks, turning the jar regularly. Or you can pour boiling vinegar over the herbs and let them steep until cool. (I use the second method). I like to let the herbs continue to steep for a week or so. Whatever method you use, after steeping, strain out the herbs (I use a basket-type coffee filter in a sieve for this), and when you bottle the vinegar, add some fresh sprigs of herb to the bottle. Adding the flowers of the herb(s) is especially pretty and, if you're using white wine vinegar, will add color to the concoction (provided the flowers aren't white, of course!).
It's important to use good vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is too harsh for salad dressings (in my opinion; if you disagree, go for it!), so go with white or red wine vinegar, or sherry vinegar, champagne vinegar, cider vinegar, etc. I have also used rice wine vinegar in some infusions.
For bottles, there are several options. You can buy corked bottles at various stores (I bought some at Meijer). You can use wine bottles if the cork still fits. I've used saved and cleaned olive oil and vinegar bottles, liqueur bottles, and hot sauce bottles, as well as those beer bottles that have the wire bail ceramic-and-rubber stoppers (see here if you don't know what I'm talking about). Colored glass won't show off the herb sprigs inside, but if you're using red wine vinegar, that doesn't matter so much.
Store your herbal vinegars in a cool, dark place. I've had some of mine for a year now, and they are still good--but most sources say you should use them up within 4-6 months. Mine smell great, have no mold, etc., and with a 6% vinegar acidity, I'm not too worried.
You can experiment infinitely with herbal combinations in various kinds of vinegars, but I offer a few recipes here to get you started. You can also get some ideas at this site (although I quibble with some of her information--for example, I haven't found sterilization of the bottles nor waxing of corks to be necessary). And remember that you can use a single type of herb to flavor vinegar--tarragon vinegar and garlic vinegar are two of the most popular herbal varieties to be found in the stores.
Garlic Basil Vinegar
This simple recipe makes an incredibly flavorful vinegar. I double or triple it, because I know my daughter will want at least a quart and I'm going to need that much myself. This is a fine marinade as well as a great salad dressing ingredient.
1 cup (or more) basil leaves
8 cloves garlic, crushed
4 cups red wine vinegar
Wash, rinse in very hot water, and dry a suitable jar (or two, if need be). Place the garlic and basil in the jar (divide evenly among two jars if you need to). Heat the vinegar to boiling. Pour the hot vinegar over the herbs. Let the herbs steep until the mixture is cool. Pour into the jar or jars. Cap tightly and let steep for another week in a cool, dark place. Strain out herbs, using a sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Pour vinegar into clean bottle(s). Add one or two fresh basil sprigs, including flowers if available, to the bottle(s). Cork or cap and store in a cool, dark place.
This one uses several fresh herbs. If you don't have some of them, don't worry about it, or replace fresh with dried.
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs marjoram
1 sprig savory
1 sprig lavender
2 garlic cloves
4 cups white wine vinegar
Proceed as in recipe above. When adding fresh sprigs, try to include some of the lavender flowers.
Italian Country Vinegar
2 sprigs rosemary
4 sprigs oregano
1 sprig sage
3 small stems basil
2 sprigs parsley
1 garlic clove
1 T. black peppercorns
4 cups red wine vinegar
Proceed as in "Garlic Basil Vinegar."