Herbal vinegars are an excellent way to preserve the goodness of nutritious, tonic herbs and to create a valuable nutritional supplement. The herbal vinegars I’m talking about are not the culinary vinegars made with a few sprigs of kitchen herbs like rosemary or thyme, but are concentrated herbal formulas using nutrient-dense herbs and wild foods like Dandelion, Burdock, Nettles and many others.
I make at least 5 or 6 herbal vinegars each year and find I am able to use them all in various cooking projects and medicinal preparations. Over the years I have come to deeply appreciate the simple but amazing virtues of herbal vinegars.
The Virtues of Vinegar
Vinegar is an incredible medicine in its own right, with long lists of healing powers credited to its name. It comes to us from ancient times. Vinegar is mentioned several times in the Bible. Hippocrates prescribed the drinking of vinegar for his patients in ancient Greece. Columbus had barrels of vinegar on his ships for the prevention of scurvy. In fact, ancient civilizations as far back as the Sumerians used vinegar as a condiment, a preservative, a medicine, an anti-biotic and a detergent. It is antibacterial and anti-fungal and gives the immune system a good boost. As a high potassium electrolyte balancer, it remineralizes the body and helps normalize the blood’s acid/alkaline balance. Vinegar is proving most beneficial to people with arthritis because it breaks down calcium deposits in the joints while supplying minerals to the bones. Here are just a few of its other benefits:
- Reduces cholesterol (the dangerous LDL cholesterol type)
- Regulates the water content in the cells and body
- Reduces water retention in the body
- Removes excess sodium from the body
- Helps regulate blood pressure
- Assists in preventing circulatory problems
- Helps with diminishing premature calcification of the arteries
- Helps increase concentration and memory
- Assists in blood circulation
Vinegar as a Solvent
Herbal vinegars are technically a type of extract or tincture made by simply infusing (steeping or soaking) herbs in vinegar for several weeks. Vinegar acts as a solvent, which is a substance that extracts and dissolves into itself the nutrients and medicinal components of an herb. Water, alcohol, glycerin and vinegar are the basic solvents used by herbalists in medicine making. Each solvent has its strengths and weaknesses. Alcohol is considered the most powerful for extracting medicinal compounds as it can dissolve many substances that water and vinegar cannot.
Vinegar trumps alcohol by far in its ability to dissolve nutrients, and in particular minerals and trace minerals. We see this action demonstrated when vinegar is used to dissolve calcium or lime deposits that build up inside a tea kettle from hard, mineral-rich water. This same power that cleans the tea kettle can be harnessed to extract the vitamins and minerals from our herbs and wild foods!
Thus herbal vinegars are a supreme nutritional supplement. One tablespoon of a good herbal vinegar has roughly the same amount of calcium as a full glass of milk! They are excellent for preventing or countering osteoporosis as well as for building and maintaining strong, healthy bones and teeth. In fact, daily supplementation with mineral-rich herbal vinegars can replace the need for factory vitamin and mineral pills entirely!
The combination of the health-enhancing vinegar and the life-giving herbs is truly a match made in heaven!
Choosing Your Vinegar
There are several kinds of vinegar on the market these days. There’s balsamic, wine vinegars, rice vinegars and malt vinegars among others. While it might be fun to experiment with different flavors, colors and concoctions, for all practical purposes apple cider vinegar is the vinegar of choice for most home-brewed herbal vinegars.
Avoid using white distilled vinegar. The process of distillation renders it nutrition-less, removing minerals such as potassium, and important acids which ward off bodily toxins and unfriendly bacteria. This highly processed vinegar can actually rob your body of minerals when ingested, therefore it should not be used internally. It does, however, work well in all kinds of household cleaning chores.
In a well-stocked health food store you may find several grades of apple cider vinegar. You may have to choose between filtered and unfiltered: In the process of fermenting apple cider there is a natural sediment that settles to the bottom. Filtered vinegar will be clear with no sediment, unfiltered will have some floaties in it. This is entirely a matter of personal preference. I like things as close to natural as possible, so I generally choose unfiltered.
Raw or pasteurized? Raw, living vinegar has an interesting organism called a "vinegar mother" living in it. It usually floats on the top of the vinegar and has a rubbery, mushroom-like texture. If raw vinegar is used, a new mother will grow on your herbal vinegar. While this is harmless, and in some minds a sign of good, enzyme-rich vinegar it can be unappetizing for others. I have experimented with raw herbal vinegars and have had some results akin to a science experiment gone awry. Left too long, the “mother” can actually consume all the goodness of the vinegar, leaving behind a questionable, watery substance. If you decide to use raw vinegar, I recommend using the vinegar within a couple of months rather than long storage.
Choosing Your Herbs
Since there is such a broad range of herbs that can be used in an herbal vinegar, there’s a lot of room to play. The best herbal vinegars are made using nutrient-dense herbs and roots, what herbalists call nutritive, tonic, or alterative herbs. These tend to be food herbs, completely safe, non-toxic, nutritional powerhouses. Even strong-tasting and bitter herbs make yummy vinegars, as the vinegar essence somehow dominates or masks the bitterness.
Potent, medicinally-active herbs are not generally made into vinegars. Vinegar won’t necessarily extract the desired chemical constituents in a medicinal herb in the way that alcohol can. Vinegars are best thought of as a super-nutritious food or food supplement rather than a pharmaceutical preparation.
Fresh or Dry?
I make all my vinegars with fresh herbs. Although it is possible to used dried herbs if you have no access to fresh, I consider these inferior to fresh-herb vinegars. There is inevitable some loss of vitality, life-force, enzymes and nutrients in the storage of dried herbs.
Simples or Compounds?
I like to make simple vinegars, which means in herbal-ese that I use one herb in each jar. Others might enjoy making compounds by mixing two or more different kinds of herbs together for their synergistic effects. There are no hard and fast rules when making nutritive vinegars. Everyone wins!
Here’s a short list of some of the herbs that shine in vinegars:
Burdock root Yellow Dock root
Dandelion (flowers, buds, leaves, and roots) Comfrey
Garlic Mustard Chickweed
Red Clover Lambsquarter
Nettles Red Raspberry Leaves
Preparing the Herbs
Herbs and roots should be clean, dry, and chopped. The more finely they are chopped, the more surface area is exposed to the action of the vinegar. Some folks even put them in the food processor for this step.
Filling the Jars
Fill your jar to the top with your chopped herbs. The size of the jar depends on how much you want to make or how much herb you have available. With some of my favorite herbs like Dandelion, I make a ½ gallon at a time, while others I might make only a cup or a pint, especially when experimenting with new herbs.
You will be amazed at how much herb it takes to fill a jar. It’s probably close to twice as much as you think might fit, so gather accordingly.
Pour your vinegar over the herbs until the jar is filled within a half inch of the top. You may need to top it off again after it settles. Some herbals recommend heating the vinegar, but I never do. I think this is leftover from the days when vinegars were raw rather than pasteurized, and heating destroyed the live cultures.
Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Do not use metal lids as vinegar will rust and corrode the metal! Although this is a great testimony to vinegar’s powerful action on metals and minerals, it will contaminate your vinegar with undesirable heavy metals.
Plastic lids are best. Mayonnaise jars often have lids that fit standard mason jars so I always save these for my vinegars. If you don’t have a plastic lid, you can put a couple of layers of plastic from old bread bags or sandwich bags underneath a metal lid or secure them with rubber bands.
Labeling, Steeping, Straining, Sweetening
Be sure to label your vinegars with the date and herbs used. Then simply store them in the cupboard or dark place for 6 weeks or longer. This long-steeping gives the vinegar plenty of time to do its work.
At the end of 6 weeks, strain the vinegar through a mesh strainer. I don’t generally strain mine until I need them. The herbs are perfectly preserved in the vinegar and will keep just fine, even for a year or more.
After the vinegar is strained, I like to sweeten it with a little honey, as it seems to really bring out the flavors and the goodness. Add 1 Tbsp honey per cup of vinegar.
The honey won’t melt in the vinegar without a little heat. I don’t like to heat the vinegars for fear of destroying some of the raw nutrients, so what I do is heat just a ¼ cup or so of the vinegar in a small pot with the honey until it is dissolved. Let cool and add it to the vinegar.
If vinegar is kept in a dark, cool place it will keep for years. There is some discrepancy in the herbal literature about how long to keep herbal vinegars, but 3-7 years is the range generally accepted. I try to use mine within two years if I can.
Using Your Herbal Vinegar
*Daily Supplement---1 or 2 Tablespoons of a good, strong herbal vinegar goes a long way towards supplying your body’s mineral needs. Vinegar is pretty intense to take straight up so just mix it with a little water. Honey-sweetened vinegars are surprisingly delicious once you get used to it. Vinegar is also really good in a glass of tomato juice, a great way to start the day!
*Salad Dressings---You can really boost the nutritional value of your salads with homemade dressings. Healthy olive oil, super-nutritious herbal vinegars, raw garlic and wild nutritive herbs are the building blocks for classy, high-powered dressings. Store-bought dressings will be history once you get the hang of making your own!
*Pickles---If you are a home canner, you can use your herbal vinegars in your pickles! How about Dandelion Dill Pickles? I make both my canned pickles and my refrigerator pickles with herbal vinegars.
*Mustards and Condiments---Homemade mustard is incredibly easy to make. It’s basically whole mustard seeds soaked in vinegar for a day or two, then sweetened and ground in a blender. There are endless variations once you have the basic recipe. Many condiments like barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, marinades, and chutneys all have vinegar in them. Making your own condiments is fun and a great way to show off your amazing herbal vinegars!
Home Herbwalk Articles Recipes Workshops About Us