Herbal Vinegars: Aromatic Delights from your Garden
A pantry full of herbal vinegars is a constant delight. Preserving fresh herbs and roots in vinegar is an easy way to capture their nourishing goodness. It’s easy too. You don’t even have to have an herb garden.
BASIC HERBAL VINEGAR
Takes 5 minutes plus 6 weeks to prepare. You will need the following:
- glass or plastic jar of any size up to one quart/liter
- plastic lid for jar or
- waxed paper and a rubber band
- fresh herbs, roots, weeds
- one quart/liter apple cider vinegar
1. Fill any size jar with fresh-cut aromatic herbs. (See accompanying list for suggestions of herbs that extract particularly well in vinegar.) For best results and the highest mineral content, be sure the jar is well filled with your chosen herb, not just a few sprigs, and be sure to cut the herbs or roots up into small pieces.
2. Pour room-temperature apple cider vinegar into the jar until it is full. Cover jar with a plastic screw-on lid, several layers of plastic or wax paper held on with a rubber band, or a cork. Vinegar disintegrates metal lids.
3. Label the jar with the name of the herb and the date. Put it in someplace away from direct sunlight, though it doesn’t have to be in the dark, and someplace that isn’t too hot, but not too cold either. A kitchen cupboard is fine, but choose one that you open a lot so you remember to use your vinegar, which will be ready in six weeks.
Apple cider vinegar has been used as a health-giving agent for centuries. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used only two remedies: honey and vinegar. A small book on Vermont folk remedies—primary among them being apple cider vinegar—has sold over 5 million copies since its publication in the ‘50s. A current ad in a national health magazine states that vinegar can give me a longer, healthier, happier life.
Vinegar has many powers: it lowers cholesterol, improves skin tone, moderates high blood pressure, prevents/counters osteoporosis, and improves metabolic functioning. Herbal vinegars are an unstoppable combination: the healing and nutritional properties of vinegar married to the aromatic and health-protective effects of green herbs (and a few wild roots).
Herbal vinegars don’t taste like medicine. In fact, they taste so good I use them frequently. I pour a spoonful or more on beans and grains at dinner; I use them in salad dressings; I season stir-fry and soups with them. This regular use boosts the nutrient-level of my diet with very little effort and virtually no expense. Sometimes I drink my herbal vinegar in a glass of water in the morning, remembering the many older women who’ve told me that apple cider vinegar prevents and eases their arthritic pains.
I aim to ingest a tablespoon or more of mineral-rich herbal vinegar daily. Not just because herbal vinegars taste great (they do!), but because they offer an easy way to keep my calcium levels high (and that’s a real concern for a menopausal woman of fifty). Herbal vinegars are so rich in nutrients that I never need to take vitamin or mineral pills.
Why vinegar? Water does a poor job of extracting calcium from plants, but calcium and all minerals dissolve into vinegar very easily. You can see this for yourself. Submerge a bone in vinegar for six weeks. What happens? The bone becomes pliable and rubbery. Why? The vinegar extracted the minerals from the bone. (And now the vinegar is loaded with calcium and other bone-building minerals!)
After observing this trick it’s not unusual to fear that if you consume vinegar your bones will dissolve. But you’d have to take off your skin and sit in vinegar for weeks in order for that to happen! Adding vinegar to your food actually helps build bones because it frees up minerals from the vegetables you eat. Adding a splash of vinegar to cooked greens is a classic trick of old ladies who want to be spry and flexible when they’re ancient old ladies. (Maybe your granny already taught you this.) In fact, a spoonful of vinegar on your broccoli or kale or dandelion greens increases the calcium you get by one-third.
All by itself, vinegar helps build bones; and when it’s combined with mineral-rich herbs, vinegar is better than calcium pills. Some people worry that eating vinegar will contribute to an overgrowth of candida yeast in the intestines. My experience has led me to believe that herbal vinegars do just the opposite, perhaps because they’re so mineral rich. Herbal vinegars are especially useful for anyone who can’t (or doesn’t want to) drink milk. A tablespoon of infused herbal vinegar has the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk.
So out the door I go, taking a basket and a pair of scissors, my warm vest and my gloves, to see what I can harvest for my bone-building vinegars.
The first greens to greet me are the slender spires of garlic grass, or wild chives, common in any soil that hasn’t been disturbed too frequently, such as the lawn, the part of the garden where the tiller doesn’t go, the rhubarb patch, the asparagus bed, the coven of comfrey plants. This morning they’re all offering me patches of oniony greens. Snip, snip, snip. The vinegar I’ll make from these tender tops will contain not only minerals, but also allyls, special cancer-preventative compounds found in raw onions, garlic, and the like.
Here where tulips will push up soon, in a sunny corner, is a patch of catnip intermingled with motherwort, two plants especially beloved by women. I use catnip to ease menstrual cramps, relieve colic, and bring on sleep. Motherwort is my favorite remedy for moderating hot flashes and emotional swings. They are both members of the mint family, and like all mints, are exceptionally good sources of calcium and make great-tasting vinegars. Individual mint flavors are magically captured by the vinegar. From now until snow cover next fall, I’ll gather the mints of each season—peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, bee balm, oregano, shiso, wild bergamot, thyme, hyssop, sage, rosemary, lavender—and activate their unique tastes and their tonic, nourishing properties by steeping them in vinegar. What a tasty way to build strong bones, a healthy heart, emotional stability, and energetic vitality.
Down here, under the wild rose hedge, is a plant familiar to anyone who has walked the woods and roadsides of the east: garlic mustard. I’ll enjoy the leaves in my salad tonight, as I do all winter and spring, but I’ll have to wait a bit longer before I can harvest the roots, which produce a vibrant, horseradishy vinegar that’s just the thing to brighten a winter salad and keep the sinuses clear at the same time.
And what’s this? A patch of chickweed! It’s a good addition to my vinegars and my salads, boosting their calcium content, though adding scant flavor. In protected spots, she offers year-round greens.
Look down. The mugwort is sprouting, all fuzzy and grey. I call it cronewort to honor the wisdom of grey-haired women. The culinary value of this very wild herb is oft overlooked. I was thrilled to find it for sale in Germany right next to the dried caraway and rosemary, in a little jar, in the supermarket. Cronewort vinegar is one of the tastiest and most beneficial of all the vinegars I make. It is renowned as a general nourishing tonic to circulatory, nervous, urinary, and mental functioning, as well as being a specific aid to those wanting sound sleep and strong bones. Cronewort vinegar is free for the making in most cities if you know where this invasive weed grows.
To mellow cronewort’s slightly bitter taste and accent her fragrant, flavorful aspects, I pick her small (under three inches) and add a few of her roots to the jar along with the leaves. I cut the tall flowering stalks of this aromatic plant in the late summer or early autumn, when they’re in full bloom, and dry them. The leaves, stripped carefully from the stalks, provided stuffing (and magic) for our winter dream pillows; they are said to carry one into vivid dreams and visions.
The sun is bright and strong and warm. I turn my face toward it and close my eyes, breathing in. I feel the vibrating life force here. Everything is aquiver. I smile, knowing that that energy will be available to me when I consume the vinegars I’ll make from these herbs and weeds. As I relax against the big oak, I breathe out and envision the garden growing and blooming, fruiting and dying, as the seasons slip through my mind’s eye….
The air grows chillier at night. The leaves fall more quickly with each breeze. The first mild frosts take the basil, the tomatoes and the squash, freeing me to pay attention once again to the perennial herbs and weeds, and urging me to make haste before even the hardy herbs drop their leaves and retreat to winter dormancy.
The day dawns sunny. Yes, now is the time to harvest the last of the garden’s bounty, the rewards of my work, the gifts of the earth. I dress warmly (remembering to wear red; hunting season’s open), stash my red-handled clippers in my back pocket, and take a basket in one hand and a plastic tub in the other.
Then I’m out the door, into autumn’s slanting sunshine and my quiet garden. My black cat bounds over to help me harvest and, after a while, the white cat emerges from under the house to purr and signal her satisfaction with my presence in her domain this morning.
My gardening friends say the harvest is over for the year, but I know my weeds will keep me at work harvesting until well into the winter. In no time at all my deep basket is full and I’m wishing I’d brought another. Violet leaves push against stalks of lamb’s quarter. Hollyhock, wild malva, and plantain leaves jostle for their own spaces against the last of the comfrey and dandelion leaves. (I think dandelion leaves are much better eating in the fall than in the spring, much less bitter to my taste after they’ve been frosted a few nights.) The last of the red clover blossoms snuggle in the middle. Though not aromatic or intensely flavored, a vinegar of these greens will be my super-rich calcium supplement for the dark months of winter.
My baskets are overflowing and I haven’t gotten to the nettles and the raspberry leaves yet. They’re superb sources of calcium, too. Ah! The gracious abundance of weeds, or should I say “volunteer herbs”—I actually respect them more than the cultivated herbs; respect their strident life force, and their powerful nutritional punch, and their added medicinal values that help me stay healthy and filled with energy.
Vinegars, as we’ve read, can be our allies by (among other things) lowering cholesterol, improving skin tone, and metabolic functioning. With a few simple tools, we easily can harvest herbs right in or around our yard to make some yummy, healthy vinegars.
Part two of this article reviews the importance of harvesting the right roots, offers some helpful pointers for making vinegars, and provides an indispensable list of plants that make for tasty vinegars and a list of plants for herbal calcium supplements.