By Holly Verbeck | Special to Moonshine Ink
The chef put Tanya’s plate in front of her and the aroma aroused her senses. Before she swallowed the first bite her taste buds searched to isolate and identify the ingredient that made her mouth sing, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
She just experienced the secret great cooks know and use to elevate their dishes, and you can as well at home with yours. Along with finishing salts and garnishes (among other things), infused butters and oils are part of a chef’s essential arsenal as they help create meals that possess a certain je ne sais quoi.
An infusion involves steeping an ingredient until the flavor of the ingredient has been extracted and absorbed into the chosen liquid. Any liquid is suitable — water, oil, vinegar, syrup, wine — but flavors don’t dissolve equally well in all of them. The good news is every diet (vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, for example) can be safely accommodated and the flavors of any dishes can be greatly enhanced with infusions. All you need to know is a few key concepts to start making them for yourself and your next meal.
Here are the five elements to help you create infusions in your kitchen.
Use the right container: Any decorative glass jar will do so long as it can be sealed and is sterilized. (Plus, you may benefit from a pair of tweezers or chopsticks to submerge herbs and remove air bubbles.)
Choose your carrier
liquid: You can accommodate any eating restrictions or preferred dietary choices by selecting a carrier liquid like avocado, coconut, grapeseed, peanut or safflower oil, and the old standbys, butter or olive oil.
Select ingredient(s) to add flavor: From herbs like sage to marjoram, oregano to tarragon, there’s a long list of ingredients that make incredible infusions, which enhance everything from your breakfast eggs to lunch salads and dinner vegetables. (Get creative and use combinations of herbs and other ingredients.) Some of the most common infusions are made with sage, rosemary, thyme, peppercorns, chili flakes, basil, dried mushrooms, chipotle, toasted sesame, and garlic. The list of possible combinations is almost as long as your imagination and your appetite.
Determine your time: The method you use to make an infusion depends on the amount of time you have. The ‘it takes time’ cold method requires four to six weeks for dried herbs to steep, only waiting for the flavors to marry, while the other two methods (i.e. low and slow vs. I need it now) demand time and attention at the stove top as they utilize heat.
Basic ‘I Need It Now’ Method:
Submerge your herbs in the carrier oil over low heat in a double boiler, preventing them from coming in contact with your heat source. Keep watch on the boiler, making sure the water doesn’t run dry, and maintain a low temperature so the oil doesn’t actually cook the herbs.
This method may take from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the extent of flavor you desire. Once you feel that your oil is ready, turn off the heat and allow the oil to cool completely before straining and using or storing.
I recommend using the stove-top method when you’re in a pinch, just ran out and don’t have time to go to the store, or need a specific oil on that day. Remember that not all oils are shelf-stable; some retain their freshness longer with refrigeration and all oils go rancid over time.
Once you taste the mouth-awakening flavors of infused oils and butters you’ll never go back to the basics. Go ahead, dig in, and savor the delicate aromas with all your senses.
Whether you’re an at-home cook or rely on your personal or private chef to provide your meals, top chefs understand infusions add subtlety and enhance a dish when used in the proper proportion. A professional cook, and any home cook (with some practice) can also obtain the most flavorful infusions when an ingredient meets its ideal fluid. Self-made infusions can be customized for friends with lovely labels and tags that trim and embellish, so don’t keep your creation to yourself. They’re ideal, delicious gifts, too!
~ Holly Verbeck is the founder of Truckee/Tahoe-based chef-staffing company heychef.com. She also mentors chefs nationwide who want to start and run their own independent chef businesses.