Sometimes the difference between a ho-hum meal and a special one lies not in an arduous process or a skilled technique, but in one, simple, unusual ingredient. Just one thing that makes the whole meal sing.

It’s such easy, quick work to create vinegars that are beautiful and flavorful. These will make amazing salads, sauces, marinades and alcoholic drinks all fall and winter, and could even be holiday gifts, even though we think now that the holidays will never come. Au contraire, those of you who eschew planning ahead!

As with all preserving, sanitation is important. Use clean, well-washed glass containers that are free of cracks and can be covered with a clean, well-washed lid.

For vinegar, a plastic lid or cork is smart, as the metal ones will corrode. Even though vinegar does not support most bacterial growth, beginning with clean hands, tools and ingredients is always a good practice. Sterilize all jars and lids before using to ensure both safety and best results.

To sterilize jars, clean them well and cover with water in a large pot. Bring the pot to a boil for 10 minutes and then carefully remove the jars and lids to a towel laid out on the counter. Let cool before filling.

I typically will let the vinegars steep in very large jars — either gallon or half-gallon. When the requisite time has elapsed, I’ll then strain the vinegar and remove the solids.

Typically, I don’t refresh with new herbs because most tend to turn an unattractive olive green anyway.

If my plan is to gift much of the vinegar, I’ll then transfer to decorative jars and add a pretty label and ribbon. Often, I’ll also add a recipe for using the vinegar, and here the sky is the limit really.

If you are using decorative jars with corks as the lid, use new, pre-sterilized corks.

As always, use unblemished, unnibbled fruit or herbs in your concoctions. Discard any brown leaves or fruit and peel and pit fruit as you would in other circumstances.

Wash the fruit or herbs well before placing them into the jars and covering with your desired vinegar.

VINEGAR POSSIBILITIES

Chive blossoms: This turns a beautiful lavender color.

Nasturtiums and basil: Lemon basil is one of my favorites.

Thyme: Any of the many varieties.

Basil: Again, so much to choose from here.

Dried chili peppers: Anything from chipotle to ancho, pasilla to guajillo.

Fennel leaves: My newest inspiration. Add seeds too for a big fennel punch.

Citrus peel: And while mentioning cleaning products in the same breath as a food product might raise an eyebrow or two, this can also can be used for good-smelling cleaning.

Garlic: Need I say more?

Tarragon: A French delight with chervil, mixed greens and a poached egg or two.

Strawberry and black peppercorns.

Raspberries: Turns a brilliant red and is lovely as a salad dressing mixed with mayonnaise and salt and pepper.

Blackberries: A deep aubergine color and super-good as an addition in a red wine reduction sauce.

Peaches and lime: Sometimes I use this in my gin and tonic in place of lime.

 

THE PROCESS looks like this:

Use any good-quality vinegar, but not one that is top-shelf.

Add your steeping ingredients to a sterilized glass jar. Use these amounts, depending on your choice:

Herbs, ½ jar, lightly packed

Berries, ¼ jar

Citrus peel, about ¼ jar

Garlic or dried peppers, 1/8 jar

Pour vinegar over the herbs, fruit, peel, garlic or pepper and cover. Let steep in a cool, dark place for 30 to 60 days.

Remove and strain the solids. Transfer to a decorative jar and cap with either a plastic lid or pre-sterilized cork.

Be satisfied that much of your holiday giving is already taken care of!

 

Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea.” She can be reached at [email protected]