Yes, Christmas is coming, in just four months. Why not get a running start on the holiday season and prepare some infused vinegars using herbs from your garden? Basil, parsley, dill, thyme, rosemary and other herbs are at their peak right now, as are berries, and making flavored vinegars is a perfect way to preserve their flavors to brighten winter dishes and to give as gifts during the holiday season.

In the past, I confess, I was slapdash with my vinegar-making; I’d sterilize an old wine bottle, tuck in some sprigs of basil, pour in the vinegar and let it steep. Friends, this is not the way to do it. Luckily, I have survived to tell the correct way to avoid giving gifts tainted by evil bacteria. Take some simple precautions, as you would when canning, and all will be fine.

Even before you head out to the garden, gather together glass jars and bottles that can be sealed with a screw-band lid, cap or cork. When you are ready to bottle, wash the containers thoroughly, then sterilize them by immersing them in a pan of hot water and simmering for 10 minutes. Once your containers are sterilized, remove them from the water and invert on a paper towel to dry. You then fill them while the jars are still warm. Caps and lids are also washed in hot soapy water, rinsed and scalded in boiling water. To scald, place caps in a pan of warm water, heat to just below boiling and then remove from the heat, leaving them in the hot water until ready to use. If using corks, buy new, pre-sterilized ones and use tongs to dip them briefly in the hot water.

Herbs are best when picked just after the morning dew has dried. Distilled white vinegar is best with delicate herbs, while berries blend well with apple cider vinegar. Spices such as peppercorns and mustard seed are good additions to herbal vinegars, as are lemon and orange peel.

Making herbed vinegar is essentially a three-step process.

First you'll sanitize the herbs by briefly dipping them in a solution of one teaspoon household bleach per six cups of water (sounds yucky, but it doesn’t really affect the flavor). Rinse the herbs thoroughly under cold water, and pat dry before placing in the sterilized jars. Use three to four sprigs of fresh herbs or one to two cups of berries per pint of vinegar to be flavored. Heat vinegar to just below boiling, then pour over the herbs and cap tightly. Allow the jars to stand for three to four weeks in a cool, dark place, then strain the vinegar through a damp cheesecloth or coffee filter until the vinegar is no longer cloudy. Discard the berries or herbs and pour the strained vinegar into clean, sterilized bottles. If at this point you wish to add a sprig or two of fresh herbs to your vinegar, you have to sanitize them as you did the flavoring herbs. Place sprigs in bottles, seal tightly and store in a cool place. Do not place bottles on a sunny windowsill and expect to have much flavor left.

H E R B A L   V I N E G A R

4 cups white vinegar
8 sprigs fresh parsley
2 tsp. thyme leaves
1 tsp. rosemary leaves
1 tsp. sage leaves
Thoroughly wash herbs and sanitize. Place herbs in sterilized quart jar. Heat vinegar to just below boiling point; pour over herbs. Cap tightly and allow to stand in cool, dark place for three to four weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain out herbs. Pour vinegar into clean, sterilized bottles with tight-fitting corks or caps. Add a fresh sprig of cleaned and sanitized rosemary, if desired.

BLACKBERRY VINEGAR

1 cup blackberries
2 cups white or apple cider vinegar
Wash one cup fresh blackberries in clean water. Bruise berries lightly and place in sterilized quart jar. Heat vinegar to just below boiling (190 ° F). Pour over berries in jar and cap tightly. Allow to stand two to three weeks in cool, dark place. Strain mixture through a fine-meshed sieve lined with cheesecloth into a two-cup glass measuring cup, pressing firmly on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard solids. Pour vinegar into clean, sterilized bottles and seal tightly. Store in a cool, dark place.