Herbed (Herby?) Oils

I’m one of those cooks who, for a few weeks or so, goes koo-koo for Coco Puffs for a particular recipe, or ingredient, or gadget, and then promptly forgets about it. The good thing about this is that I inevitably “rediscover” the thing I’d been koo-koo for, and I experience a kind of second honeymoon with it. The thing I’ve rediscovered lately is herbed oils. In this case, I think I tend to remember them during the summer when I’m growing herbs in my garden, and kind of forget about them the rest of the year.

At any rate, since I’m presently on an herbed oil jag, I will share with you why. First of all, hot weather makes me crabby, which in turn makes me become a verrrrrrrrrrry lazy cook. I mostly just want salads, because they’re cold, or pastas, because you don’t have to stand over the stove while they cook (also because…pasta). What’s great about herbed oils is that they can make the most mundane pasta or salad taste really good, with minimal effort!!

Second, you can whip up several oils in less than an hour, and thus increase your taste profile options. I made three this afternoon!!!

Finally, we’ve been trying all kinds of new olive oils in the BG Test Kitchen because Locavore—which, YAY!, will be opening next month!!!—will be carrying several high quality oils, and so you have some great options to choose from. Too bad for the BG Test Kitchen, but we’ve been forced (!!!) to taste, cook and experiment with, all of them so that we can make informed recommendations to our YOU. After all of our tasting experiments, I’m going to recommend our Locavore Blend Olive Oil, which is a blend of several different Mediterranean olive oils, as a great oil for everyday use, including herbed oils. Our Tunisian Chemlali Olive Oil is also a great choice for using as a base for herbed oils because it is so mild. (It’s good to use a less flavorful olive oil because it won’t compete too much with the herbs and flavorings that you infuse it with.) So let’s get going!

Step One: Choose Your Ingredients

Equipment needed:

I recommend beginning with any two or three of your favorite flavor combinations—any more than that and the oil gets too complicated. So maybe try basil and garlic, cilantro and jalapeno, or my current obsession, chives and summer savory. My choices for today:

(If you’re unsure of which combinations work well together, I highly recommend The Flavor Bible, which you may read about here!!) Or, make it easy on yourself and just start with one thing you love—oregano? garlic? You can get more creative for your next batch. (I plan to experiment with some sweet-hinted oils one of these days—maybe cinnamon & cayenne for my morning toast, or lavender-vanilla for baking? Also, I say “sweet-hinted” because they will pair with sweets, but will not be sweet themselves because sugar won’t dissolve in oil.)

I usually make small batches at a time, since cold-infused oils keep only for about a week, and heated ones a bit longer. The general ratio I use is about ¼ cup of loosely-packed fresh herbs, or about ½-¾ teaspoon of dried herbs, to one cup of oil. Keep in mind, though, that the stronger the herb/ingredient (e.g., rosemary, garlic, chiles, peppercorns), the less you’ll need, while you may add more of the milder ones like chives and let them steep longer, if you like.

Step Two: How to Infuse the Oil

There are two main methods to choose from: cold infusion, in which you do not heat the oil, and heated infusion, in which you do. (I don’t add any salt to my oils, since salt doesn’t dissolve in oil. I just add some onto the dish with the oil before serving.)

Cold infusion works well with fresh delicate herbs such as dill, cilantro and chives, with soft ingredients such as fresh chile peppers, garlic, and ginger, and with tiny ingredients like peppercorns and seeds. Just zap your chosen herbs and ingredients in a food processor, or you can go old school and mash them up with a mortar and pestle, then add them to your oil.

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Chives with black & white peppercorns, with Tunisian Chemlali olive oil.

After twenty minutes or so, once the flavors have infused the oil, strain out the solid matter and funnel the oil into a sterile oil dispenser. I like to press down on the strained-out solids with the back of a spoon in order to squeeze out every last drop of oil. Be sure to keep cold-infused oils, especially those in which fresh ingredients are used, in the fridge.

Heated infusion works with fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme, and with ingredients such as dried chiles or citrus zest, since all of these are more resilient and stand up to heat better than the more tender options. It’s important, though, not to heat up the oil too much—no higher than 145-150 degrees. I usually heat my oil for maybe 7-8 minutes over medium heat, and put the herbs in when a sprinkle of water on the oil hisses and evaporates upon contact. Then remove the oil from the heat and cover.

I generally find 20-30 minutes adequate for infusion, but for deeper flavor, let the herbs rest in the oil for longer.

It’s not necessary to refrigerate heated oils after infusion, but I usually put them into the fridge, anyway, just to prolong their life a bit, which is advisable for cooking oils in general.

Step Three: The Fun Part–Using the Oils

You’re only as limited as your own imagination here. Try your oils on everything. It’s probably helpful to think of your oil as a finishing sauce rather than as an oil you’d use to cook with. Although it is possible to sauté veggies in your flavored oil, you’d probably get more flavor and use less oil if you drizzled it onto the veggies after sautéing them in another oil.

Here are a few more possibilities for how to use your oil:

  • top your pasta with it
  • sprinkle it on a sandwich in place of mayo or mustard
  • use it as the base of your pasta salad’s vinaigrette
  • try it in a potato salad, depending on the flavors?
  • definitely eat it on green salads
  • drizzle over sliced tomatoes on a piece of toast, and top with a sprinkle of sel gris
  • stir a couple spoonfuls over grilled summer veggies
  • top fried or poached eggs with your oil

Don’t forget to add a sprinkle of a nice salt and some freshly ground black pepper! Presto: easy meal done! Check this out:

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Poached eggs over toast, speck and fresh cherry tomatoes, drizzled with the third oil I made with the mystery spice in the photograph above, and sprinkled with summer savory, freshly ground black pepper, and Cyrus Black Flake Sea Salt. Know what that spice is? It’s called grains of paradise (soon to be available at Locavore!).

It’s a West African spice related to the ginger plant, with a unique and very lovely flavor–in my experience, it begins with a piney, rosemary-like taste, with a hint of tea, and then evolves into a peppery heat. In fact, I’ve read that some people who cannot eat black pepper find grains of paradise to be a nice substitute for pepper. I will continue to experiment with it and give you some updates on its uses.

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Ground grains of paradise. They look like tiny coconuts: brown on the outside, white in the middle. So cute!

Grains of paradise is a West African spice related to the ginger plant, with a unique and very lovely flavor–in my experience, it begins with a piney, rosemary-like taste, with a hint of tea, and then evolves into a peppery heat. In fact, I’ve read that some people who cannot eat black pepper find grains of paradise to be a nice substitute for pepper. I will continue to experiment with it and give you some updates on its uses. 

Meanwhile, make some herby oils!! Let me know which combinations you use, and how you use them!! Write some comments below, if you like!