Perhaps for thousands of years humans have been purposely, and sometimes accidentally, fermented sugars and starches into vinegar. Vinegar, used in food and herbal preservation and given its accompanying health benefits, is an important part of the home herbalists tool box. Vinegar is excellent for preserving nutritive herbs as it extracts minerals such as calcium.
Apple cider vinegar is most commonly used but vinegar can be made from most fermentable carbohydrate rich sources such as wine, grain, potato, beet, sorghum, honey, berries and fruit. As the sugars in these foods are fermented by yeasts and other helpful microorganisms it turns into alcohol. Vinegar is essentially this alcohol cultured by Acetobacter bacteria (acetic acid) when exposed to oxygen. This bacteria is what makes vinegar sour. Since vinegar is made from plants the acetic acid levels are variable. Store bought vinegar is diluted with water and brought to a consistent five-eight percent acidity. Amounts over ten percent are considered an irritant. Unpasteurized vinegar contains a mother culture of cellulose and bacteria, called Mycoderma aceti, as well as mineral salts, vitamins, amino acids and polyphenols.
Vinegar makes a good vehicle for preserving mineral rich spring greens like nettle, chickweed and dandelion greens. From there this mineralized vinegar is a starting point for salad dressings for vegetables or added to bone broths.
Volatile oils such as those in aromatic herbs like thyme, bee balm, chamomile, catnip and garlic are classic cold and cough remedies. Infusing an aromatic expectorant herb in vinegar and drinking hot as a tea makes a quick remedy. In general aromatics balance circulation and muscle tension and bring peace of mind-so helpful during bouts of illness. Simply place a couple tablespoons of herbal vinegar in hot water and drink.Gargles are useful with a diluted aromatic vinegar such as sage and thyme for sore throats and coughs needing warming aromatic dispersive energy.
There are several ways to make herbal vinegar. Always start with a clean and dry jar. For culinary use chop a single fresh herb, for instance rosemary, place in a loose pack in a jar and cover with vinegar. Taste it as it steeps straining when you like it. If minerals or volatile oils are the medicinal target use a weigh and measure preparation. Use freshly dried or high quality dried herbs in roughly a one:four ratio, more or less depending on whether it is a leafy plant or a root or how ‘fluffy’ the plant material. The one is the weight of the plant in ounces (or grams). The four is the volume of liquid in ounces (or ml) in relation to the weight. For example to a harvest of four ounces by weight of freshly dried nettle leaves add sixteen ounces of vinegar by volume to cover. To finish both methods, cover with a plastic top or a metal top with parchment paper between the vinegar and the lid. Shake daily and let sit for about four weeks in a cool dark place. Strain herb, compost and bottle infused vinegar. Label with date, kind of vinegar and herb used. Renew every year.
Another way to utilize vinegar is to make Shrubs and Oxymels. Check out Iowan herbalist Adrian’s informative article on making Shrubs. Rosalee, an Herbalist from the Pacific Northwest, shares her wisdom about Oxymels.
Leave a comment and let us know your favorite way or combinations of herbs to preserve with vinegar. Happy preserving!