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Bottled Herbs & Stuff
by John Harmon
September 14, 2003

With the weather turning colder every day the flowers are about done except for those that had some frost protection. The garden herbs are also about done for the year. Now is the time to pick the best and preserve them for the winter.

When you see those fancy bottles full of vinegar or oil with herbs for sale in the stores you might think they will look great in your kitchen. When you see the price tag they don’t look so good anymore. Here’s how to get that great looking bottle of preserved herbs with a little price tag.

First you need to decide what kind of vinegar you intend to use. White vinegar is made from grains and is very consistent with the amount of acidity. Wine vinegar is made from grapes and has a different flavor. Then there’s apple cider vinegar, which is easily made. Just try and make a batch of apple wine and you have more than an even chance of ending up with this one. Most vinegar's have some small amounts of trace elements and tiny amounts of minerals like potassium, iron and calcium in them that won't hurt the final product.

Vinegar is highly acidic and is a natural preservative. It helps inhibit growth of bacteria. That doesn’t mean bacteria can’t grow in it. It just helps. When you’re picking vinegar for preserving look at the label for the content of Acetic acid. That’s the part that does the preserving. Try to pick one with five percent Acetic acid by volume. Other kinds of vinegar with different tastes may not have a high enough concentration to do the job. The less Acetic Acid in the vinegar the shorter shelf life of anything preserved in it.

Prepare your herbs by washing them in cold water. The better you clean them the less likely it is that they will grow molds or Clostridium botulinum bacteria. This is the deadly bacterium that causes botulism. Some vinegar’s may not be high enough in Acetic acid and may support the growth of E. coli bacteria, which is not nice either as anyone in Walkertown, Ontario can tell you.

The bottom line is make sure you get your herbs clean and sterilize your bottles or jars. Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D. Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist at Colorado State University Cooperative Extension says “Because herbs can be difficult to clean, the safest approach is to dip them in a solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach per 6 cups of water, then rinse the herb’s in clear running water. Heating the vinegar to just below boiling is another wise precaution for ensuring sanitary conditions.” That doesn’t sound good to me but you will have to make up your own mind about putting your food in bleach. The fact is the better you clean them the longer they will last.

Take your choice of clean herbs and hot vinegar and combine them in a clean glass container. Don’t put them in your fancy bottle just yet. It will take three or four weeks for the full flavor to develop. Store it in the refrigerator while the flavor reaches it’s full potential. It only takes a few sprigs of any kind of herb. Don’t make the mistake that I did and pack a bunch or different herb’s together and leave them out on the windowsill. First it was way too strong to use for anything and then because it was in the light it grew molds and other nasties. Combining herb’s takes some skill so one doesn’t overpower the other. It’s a skill I don’t have.

After your storage period take them back out and strain them through cheesecloth and then through a coffee filter. Bring the liquid almost to a boil and pour into your fancy, sterile, bottle. At this point you can add one sprig of whatever herb you are using just for looks. If everything was clean to begin with you can expect your mixture to last for three or four months. After that you may run into problems with mold and bacteria. They will last longer if you skip adding the sprig of fresh herb in the fancy bottle. You can also run into problems with mold after the liquid gets used down to a point where the herb sprig is uncovered.

You also see the fancy bottles of herb’s or garlic and tomatoes in oil. Here’s what Pat Kendall says, "Infused oils and oil-based mixtures of garlic, herb’s, or dried tomatoes can pose a definite health hazard if not properly prepared and refrigerated". For added safety, the Food and Drug Administration (US) now requires that all commercial garlic-in-oil products contain specific levels of microbial inhibitors or acidifying agents, substances such as phosphoric or citric acid. Although most garlic products contain these additives, some of the boutique and specialty mixes may not. Always check the label to be sure. As for home-prepared mixtures of garlic-in-oil, the FDA (US) recommends that these be made fresh for immediate use and not left out at room temperatures. Any leftovers should be discarded or promptly refrigerated for use within three weeks. They can also be frozen.

Here’s what Pat says about the reason for this concern with products in oil. " Un-refrigerated garlic-in-oil mixtures without antimicrobial agents have been shown to permit the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria along with subsequent toxin production. This contamination will not necessarily affect the taste or smell of the products. Botulism is a potentially fatal food poisoning characterized by blurred or double vision, speech and breathing difficulty, and progressive paralysis. Toxin production has been known to occur even when a small number of C. botulism spores were present in the garlic. When the spore-containing garlic is bottled and covered with oil, the oxygen-free environment that is created promotes the germination of spores and the growth of microorganisms at temperatures as low as 50 degrees F".

Stick with the vinegar. It’s safer by far. If you do use oil follow the same procedure as for the vinegar and keep it colder than 50 degrees F. for storage. Take it out of the fridge to the table just before you use it.

With a little care you can create your own fancy bottles for very little cost especially if you’re growing your own herbs.



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