Infused oils and vinegars for dipping and topping have become increasingly popular for use as hors d'oeuvres and as complements to bread courses. Fairly new to the culinary mainstream and home entertaining, dipping oils and dipping vinegars are lighter and less filling than most cream-based dips.
Dipping oils and vinegars, or "infused" oils and vinegars are similar to salad dressings, in that they are based in quality, great tasting oils or vinegars (or both) with herbs, spices or vegetable bits for flavor. Infused recipes, particularly infused oil recipes, contain a higher percentage of oil or vinegar than most salad dressings. It is the oil that gives the recipe weight for dipping. Infused vinegar solutions are used more often as a spritz, marinade, or topping for vegetables.
Safety Concerns with Infused Mixes
When making infused dipping oils at home, food safety is the greatest concern. Oil by itself cannot grow bacteria, but herbs and vegetable pieces containing water mixed into dipping oils can. Botulinum organisms can grow in food sources containing even trace amounts of water and cause botulism - a serious form of food poisoning. For this reason, blending and storing infused dipping oils without refrigeration is not recommended. Still, dipping oil blends make fabulous gifts for holidays, house warmings and more. The threat of botulism contaminating your homemade oils is very real and should not be ignored; however, there are ways to make oil and vinegar preparations at home that can be used promptly or given as gifts.
Botulinum organisms need water to grow, so anything that does not contain water cannot host botulinum toxins. Herbs, garlic, roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes and many other ingredients that make delicious dipping oil ingredients should theoretically be safe to add to oils, so long as the ingredients have been completely dried in a food dehydrator or by some other means of food dehydration. The difficulty in a home kitchen environment is ensuring that the food is 100 percent dry, containing no trace water whatsoever. For the absolute safest route, a little creativity is called for.
If you are mixing oils to use as hors d'oeuvres or for immediate home use, botulism is of little concern. Even fresh herbs and ingredients can be used for a mix that will be consumed within a short amount of time. Mix your infused oils according to recipe instructions and store in the refrigerator. Mixing a day ahead of time gives the ingredients extra time for the flavors to blend while remaining safely refrigerated for some time. If refrigerated, homemade infused oils are safely stored for one to two weeks. Bring the desired amount of oil to room temperature before dipping.
To give homemade oils as gifts, it is best to give a bottle of good quality oil accompanied with a packet of premixed dried ingredients and mixing instructions. Like oils infused for use at your home, the herb and oil mixes will be safe if mixed by the recipient before use and stored in the refrigerator, but can be transported in a gift basket or gift bag without the need for refrigeration. Be sure to add a recipe tag detailing simple mixing instructions and most importantly, safe handling (i.e., "For safety's sake, please mix herbs and oils when you plan to consume them and store in the refrigerator until served. Discard unused oil after one to two weeks"). Between using dried ingredients and safe handling practices (refrigeration), you virtually ensure the oils will be safe. It is unlikely that well dried ingredients would pose a threat anyway, but delaying the introduction to the oil and refrigerating gains an added level of safety.
Homemade infused vinegars on the other hand, are generally considered safe. Vinegar naturally cures foods and prevents the growth of bacteria like botulinum toxins. Five percent or higher vinegar solutions are adequate to ensure food safety. Five percent solutions are what is commonly sold in grocery stores, and higher solutions are available through specialty and restaurant suppliers. For a quite safe gift, mix infused vinegars with dried herbs, spices, garlic, and dried vegetable bits.
Many dipping mixtures are combinations of vinegar and oils with herbs and additional ingredients. Despite the antibacterial properties of vinegars, it is still safer to give items separately to be mixed prior to use, as oil and vinegar separate and herbs may settle in the oil and potentially grow bacteria. The practical meaning of this is err on the side of caution and do not give a premade mix of oil, vinegar, and additives unless going directly from your refrigerator to theirs and consumed within two weeks. However, you can create a safe gift basket of breads, a bottle of olive (or another) oil and a previously mixed infused vinegar (again, with mixing and handling instructions).
Mixing Your Infused Oils and Vinegars
Safety aside, what should go into a great tasting infused oil or vinegar recipe? A Web search will return enough recipe results to get you started, or experiment with flavors to create you own. Some require heating, others simple mixing. Heating helps blend and intensify flavors, but so too will combining ingredients a day or so ahead of time.
Oil and vinegar recipes range from the very simple to very complex. Even a very basic dried-roasted garlic is a delicious gift or serving option. Add to a garlic oil or vinegar sun dried tomato bits, roasted red pepper, thyme, parsley, or oregano. Start with one or two of your favorite ingredients and expand from there. Think along the lines of salad dressings and sandwich oils. For basic ratios to get you on your way, use herbs in equal measurements; one-half teaspoon of one or more dried herbs to one half cup oil or vinegar. Increase or decrease any given ingredient to taste.
For gift presentation, build an attractive gift basket. Include a bottle of oil and separate herb packets with instructions for mixing, and if desired, vinegar or infused vinegar. This is enough to give by itself and allows total package preparation ahead of time. For a larger gift, include cheeses and a loaf or two of fresh crusty bread for dipping. Wrap the gift basket with cellophane for security if desired.
Infused vinegars and dipping oils make tasty hors d' oeuvres, welcome alternative bread courses and fabulous gifts. Dried herb packets and unmixed ingredients attractively combined for gift baskets are the safest for gift giving. With a little understanding of food safety, infused vinegar and dipping oils are safe and attractive gifts to give. Everyone on your list or in your home will appreciate these unique and delicious useful gifts.