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    Gardener steeps sweet with sour to make colorful gifts

    The 4-H volunteer produces flavored vinegars that take on cranberry and other hues.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000

    LARGO -- If you are still pondering what holiday gift to get Aunt Tillie or that neighbor down the street, think flavored vinegar.

    "I try to give handmade gifts, and flavored vinegars fill the bill," said Betty Hill, 74, a master gardener with the Pinellas County Extension Service and a 4-H volunteer along with her husband, Tom. "You're giving something of yourself."

    Mrs. Hill, who gives workshops on making flavored vinegars, says it's not too late to make the sweet-sour treats in time for the holidays.

    Recently, Hill showed off a dozen vinegars she has made, mostly with herbs and flowers from her Largo garden and even cranberries from Wisconsin, where she and her husband spend half of their year.

    Regardless of what flavor of vinegar you wish to make, Mrs. Hill offers some basic rules:

    Always use vinegar with 5 percent acidity. Most commercial vinegars fit the bill, including plain, white distilled vinegar, white wine vinegar or cider vinegar. It can be purchased at most stores and supermarkets.

    Because vinegar is an acid, use only glass or pottery containers that are clean and sterilized. Salad dressing bottles are especially useful.

    Use plastic caps or cork stoppers (which can be purchased at a crafts store or hardware store). "Don't use metal caps, because they interact with the acidity of the vinegar," Mrs. Hill said. If you must use metal caps, put some type of a liner in between the cap and the contents of the bottle.

    "My favorite kind of vinegar is made with cranberries," Mrs. Hill said. "The longer it sets, the prettier it gets." She showed off the concoction, which had a light-pink color.

    "Another favorite of mine is vinegar made with opal basil. That one also has a pink tone," she said.

    To make flavored vinegar, first wash and sterilize the bottles. Then, gather your ingredients together. Flavored vinegars can be made with just about any herb, including rosemary, mint, basil, oregano, garlic, ginger, chives and some more exotic herbs such as Mexican marigolds, lemon grass and lavender.

    Fruits such as lemons, orange, cranberries, raspberries, elderberries, pears, peaches and more can be used. And even flowers such as tea roses and the blossoms from elder trees can be used.

    "It's best to use flowers out of your garden," Mrs. Hill said. "Those from the florist tend to have pesticides on them. You don't want to get that in your vinegar."

    If you don't grow herbs, she advises you purchase fresh herbs in plastic bags or in pots at the supermarket.

    Mrs. Hill said the easiest way to make the flavored vinegar is to put the washed (and patted dry) herb sprigs (don't overstuff) into the bottle, fill with vinegar of your choice and cork or cap up.

    "If you are in a hurry, you can heat the vinegar to a near boil," she said. "That will speed up the process. But, if you can wait, it's better to use cold vinegar and let the mixture steep at room temperature for two to three weeks or more."

    Mrs. Hill said she buys gallon jugs of vinegar because it is easier to make several bottles at once.

    As an added touch, Mrs. Hill labels each bottle with the exact ingredients and various uses for that type of vinegar. For instance, her mint vinegar label says it is good with lamb, ham or even cole slaw.

    Finally, she trims each bottle with a real or plastic herb or flower denoting the contents.

    "Sometimes, I even put the gift bottle in a hand-sewn bag and tie it up with string and "yo yos' (made from bottle caps and material)," she said.

    Cora Meares, a 4-H supervisor and recipient of many bottles of Mrs. Hill's vinegars, gives the culinary gifts a rave review.

    "They don't last long at all in our house. We use them right away," said Meares. "Last year, she (Betty Hill) gave me some cranberry-flavored vinegar. My reaction was: "Wow, what is this?' I used it on romaine lettuce and added raisins and other sweet things. Delicious."

    How to make cranberry-flavored vinegar:

    1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

    3 1/2 cups white wine vinegar

    1/2 cup honey

    glass containers: a bowl, juice jar and decorative bottles

    funnel, sieve or coffee filter

    labels, ribbon or other decorations

    Put cranberries and vinegar in glass bowl; heat in the microwave just until the boiling point. Stir in honey gently. Try not to break the cranberries. Cool and pour into a 1-quart glass bottle or jar. Store in a cool, dark place for two weeks to two months while the vinegar takes on the deep, rich color and tangy taste of the cranberries.

    Strain out the cranberries either through a sieve or a clean coffee filter and pour the vinegar into a decorative bottle. Add a few cranberries or a sprig of fresh herbs to the bottle to make it even prettier. Cork or cap the bottle, add a label and a ribbon and you've got the perfect gift.

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