Tom’s Garden

Growing by the Bay

Category: cooking

Tarragon

Homemade tarragon vinegar

Tarragon vinegar.

Tarragon vinegar after application of boiling vinegar.

Tarragon vinegar is a staple of French cuisine. (French chefs often combine it with mustard.) “I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism,” James Beard said, “I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.”

It’s easily made. I took a sprig of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) from the garden and placed it in a sterilized bottle. Then I submersed it in boiling white wine vinegar. Let cool and cap. If you are using fresh French tarragon from the garden the result will be excellent — wonderful in salad dressings but also great even for things like deglazing skillets.

For best results, store in a dark place for a couple of weeks to allow the tarragon oils to infuse.

 

herbal bitters detail

Herbal Bitters Recipes

Tom's Herbal Bitters

A selection of Tom’s Herbal Bitters

For my next two batches of bitters I followed a base herbal bitters recipe from Mark Bitterman. He uses three bittering agents in his herbal bitters: I tsp gentian, 2 tsp quassia chips, 1 tbs hops, together with 2 tbs double strength simple syrup. He combines Everclear grain alcohol and botanical gin in the ratio of 4:1. No doubt it’s best to use the highest-quality herbal gin, but that stuff is pretty expensive, so I just used Rangpur Tanqueray, which seemed to work. To this base he simply combines fruit pieces and fresh herbs in fairly hefty quantities. I used basil and dried cherries in one and cilantro and lime in the other. These and other recipes can be found in his Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters 40 Amari 123 Recipes for Cocktails Food & Homemade Bitters (Andres McMeel, 2015).

I stopped infusing after 5 days. After that point the tannins start to dominate, and I didn’t want to lose the fresh herb and fruit flavors. I put the canning jars full of ingredients in a dark place and shook them several times a day. I strained the mixture through a gold coffee filter, and then through a funnel with a double layer of cheesecloth into two-ounce amber bottles with droppers. I chose the two-ounce bottles because I want to be able to carry some with me on airlines to give away. (I washed the bottles first with soap and water and then dried them as best I was able.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Bitterman says that herbal bitters are especially good in cooking. A few drops of cherry bitters might be interesting with maple syrup buttermilk pancakes, I imagine. But I prefer them for savory cocktails using spirits like tequila, whisky, or gin. The cilantro lime bitters should work well with Mexican menus. The Bollard has some suggestions for tequila cocktails, and you can get some ideas from Yummly too. And there’s a Cherry Basil Collins recipe at Cocktail Puppy. Generally you have to be a little creative, since older recipes presume Angostura are the only bitters you can find (unless you’re in New Orleans and can get Peychaud’s). Now there are hundreds of commercials bitters as well as more people like me making their own.

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Happily, my limes seem to have survived our stretch of frosts. I don’t grow cherries, and I used dried cherries from the supermarket. I bought the dried herbs I didn’t grow myself from Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley — highly recommended.

I make my labels with 2 x 4 in. Avery labels, using InDesign template 5163. I size the background image first in Photoshop. The font is Garamond Premier Pro, the same I used in 1616: The World in Motion; River of Ink: Literature, History, Art; and many other books.

The Bitter Gardener

citrus bitters

Bitters are handy in cocktails and cooking — or even to just flavor water for drinking. This is my first batch of bitters, and the result is satisfying.

Making your own bitters means you have control over the ingredients. Most of mine come from the garden and are organic. More on that in another post.

You have solvents, bittering agents, and flavoring agents. You can make separate tinctures and then combine, or just throw everything in a single canning jar and hope for the best (which was my approach for this batch of citrus bitters). Making separate tinctures gives better control (different ingredients infuse at different rates), although it might be that the flavors combine better when infused together.

My main solvents were Everclear grain alcohol and  unfiltered semi-sweet sake (in a ration of about 2:1). I think next time I will try substituting mirin for the sake to get a result that is less cloudy.

My bittering agent was wormwood (the extremely bitter ingredient in absinthe). My flavors were lemon, bitter orange, lime, tangerine, cardamom, allspice, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and anise seed.

You shake the jar every day for a week or so (most sites advise two weeks or more, but I feel Mark Bitterman — more on him in a moment — is right when he says a shorter time gives fresher, less tannic flavor. Then you strain, first through a gold coffee filter and then through cheesecloth, bottle, and label. Some people simmer the macerated ingredients and use the resulting water to cut the alchohol, but I see no advantage in that compared to cutting with a solvent with a lower ABV (in this case the sake).

I consulted many websites, but my main guides were Mark Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari and Will Budiaman’s Hardcrafted Bitters. I particularly like Bitterman.

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