Q: I want to make flavored vinegars and flavored oils for Christmas presents. I have some pretty bottles that I’ve been saving to use. My questions are: For long-term storage, how long do I need to process them? Pressure canner or boiling water? How long? And what kind of lids should I use, since the bottles came with corks?
Answer: The vinegars will not need to be processed at all. Vinegar is its own natural preservative. Adding enough herbs or spices to flavor it won’t affect the acid level. Scald the bottles in boiling water before you add the herbs, then pour the vinegar over them and put the corks in. Or use whatever other lids or caps you have.
Homemade flavored oils are completely different. To be safe, the only way they can be stored is in the refrigerator, and only for a week at a time. The FDA no longer allows commercial companies to make herbs in oil mixtures that use refrigeration as the safety control. And we at home don’t have the other methods they have to keep the oils safe. The risk with oil is botulism. There have been various cases from herbs in oils over the years, and you do not want to create that problem!
Many plants (herbs, spices, vegetables, etc) carry botulism spores. They’re harmless until they get sealed up someplace without air. Then they’ll grow and produce their toxins. When you put herbs in a bottle and cover them with oil, the oil seals out the air. It can be a perfect home for botulism bacteria to grow.
To kill the spores, you’d need to cook the bottles in a pressure canner, 240 degrees at 10 pounds of pressure. There are no recommended times developed for doing this with bottles of oil because by the time they were safe the herbs would be cooked to mush, the flavors would be completely changed and the oils might have become darkened from the heat. So we at home have to depend on cold temperatures to keep the spores from growing.
If you make them for yourself, keep them refrigerated at all times, and don’t keep them for longer than a week.
Q: I have several identifiable plants growing in my compost pile, and they’re producing more vegetables. I’m wondering — are those volunteers safe to eat, since they’re growing in a pile of rotting plants?
Answer: Go right ahead and enjoy them! Growing in that rich soil, they should be delicious. You do need to treat them with the same care you’d use to handle other fresh produce. Refrigerate them after harvest. Wash them with running water, scrubbing lightly if they have a firm enough skin when you’re ready to use them.
Most of the bacteria that make us sick are more associated with animals than plants. Compost piles should have no animal products in them. If there are no animal wastes then the major pathogens would not usually be present. Washing well and/or cooking will take care of any other bacteria.
If there is animal waste in the compost, the safe thing — beyond washing well, peeling, etc. — probably would be to cook the vegetables.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.