(Adapted from The Herb Garden Cookbook, University of Texas Press)
For best flavor, pick herbs in early morning before the heat has wilted them. Gently rinse herbs; shake out excess moisture and allow herbs to dry naturally for about an hour, or carefully pat them dry. Remove any damaged or discolored leaves and woody stems.
Fill a clean glass gallon jar 2/3 full of the herbs, gently twisting or "wringing" them to release their volatile oils. Add other flavorings as desired such as peeled garlic, dried red chiles, citrus peel cut in a continuous spiral, flower petals, ginger, and whole spices). Ginger and garlic should be peeled and gently mashed with the back of a wooden spoon. To prevent bitterness, take care not to include any white pith of citrus peel.
Use only high-quality vinegars such as white, red, or champagne wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is way too harsh!
In a non-reactive pan, heat vinegar, but DO NOT bring to boil, or you will lose needed acidity for preservation. Pour vinegar over herbs, stirring well and gently bruising the herbs with the back of a wooden spoon. Cover with plastic wrap or a non-metal lid and store in a cool place for a week, stirring occasionally and making certain herbs are submerged in vinegar. Add more herbs and steep for another week if more flavor is needed.
Strain into sterilized decorative bottles, using a non-metal funnel and chlorine-free paper coffee filters. Place a few fresh, unbruised herb sprigs (and dried red chiles, garlic cloves, ginger, citrus peel, or spices if you wish) into each bottle for "garnish" and added flavor.
Cork or cap bottles and store in a cool, dark, place AWAY from direct sunlight, though you will be tempted to show them off on a windowsill to glisten in the sunlight. Decorate bottles with bouquets of dried herbs and basil seedpods or fresh rosemary stems and tie with raffia or colorful ribbons. Handmade labels and suggestions for using the vinegars is a bonus for the recipient.
As in fine wine, sediment occurs naturally and will not impair flavor. Peeled garlic cloves will darken when left in the vinegar. Once you use the vinegar, always remember to remove or submerge decorative herb sprigs that are no longer covered with vinegar, or they may mold (add fresh sprigs if you wish.) Use vinegars within 6-8 months.
Follow the above directions for making the following herb vinegars:
LOVELY LEMON VINEGAR
Fill glass jar 2/3 full with a combination of lemon balm, lemon basil, lemon thyme, and lemon verbena and several stalks of lemon grass (sliced and slightly crushed). Add spiraled peels of one 1 or more lemons, depending on size of jar. Cover with white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar. Once you have strained it, remember to add a fresh spiral of lemon peel to each bottle and a bouquet of the lemony herbs. Use this fresh and citrusy vinegar over cooked and raw vegetables, in zesty salad dressings and sauces, in marinades for chicken or fish, and anywhere a sparkle of flavor is needed.
TEXAS TARRAGON VINEGAR
Fill a jar 1/2 full of fresh Mexican Mint Marigold (remove the leaves from stems so the vinegar won't taste too strong or become dark). Cover with white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. After straining, add fresh stems with golden mint marigold flowers. This vinegar's strong anisey flavor rivals that of tarragon. Add to pickled beets or grated slaws and use in marinades and vinaigrettes and sauces.
GARDEN FRESH MINT VINEGAR
Fill jar 2/3 full of fresh spearmint. Spiraled peels of 1 or 2 lemons, garlic cloves and a few dried red chiles may be added, though the mint aroma is refreshing and delightful as is. Cover with white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Mint vinegar tastes delicious sprinkled over raw vegetables or fresh fruits, used in a salad dressing, drizzled over soups, and of course, is a must for lamb.
Fill a jar with a combination of basil and oregano and a few long stems of rosemary (remove leaves from woody stems). Add 1 or more heads of peeled garlic cloves and a handful of dried, red cayenne peppers or chile de árbol. Cover with red wine vinegar. Once strained, add a small bouquet of the three herbs to each bottle along with a dried chile and a few garlic cloves impaled on a wooden skewer. Delicious as a marinade or added to tomato sauces, chili, stews, and beans.
GINGERED THAI BASIL
Fill jar 2/3 full of fresh reddish purple Thai basil, lots of peeled and sliced ginger, and one or more tablespoons of Szechwan pepper. Cover with rice wine vinegar and it turns a gorgeous jewel-like garnet color. Add reserved "pickled" ginger slices and a fresh sprig of Thai basil to each bottle. Scrumptious with Southeast Asian fare, stir-fries, marinades with sesame oil and garlic, or drizzled over avocados or fresh fruit.