Some of the most widely recognized spice and alcohol infusions are beverages rather than culinary ingredients. Spirits and liqueurs including bitters, gin, absinthe, and raki are made by infusing alcohol with spices and botanicals at different points in the process. Perhaps the only common culinary infusion of spices and alcohol is vanilla extract, but alcohol infusions are a great way to add the essence of a spice to completely permeate a dish, and they can be made with virtually any spice.
In general, alcohol infusions are ideal for baked goods — where flour absorbs the flavor and the alcohol content cooks off — or in cocktails, which celebrate both the alcohol and the flavor of the spiced infusion.
To make an alcohol infusion, combine a spice and a spirit in a glass jar or bottle. If you want a bright, sharp spice flavor, start with a neutral or clear spirit like vodka. If you want a sweeter, rounded flavor, use an aged or dark spirit like whiskey or dark rum. Let it sit in a dark cupboard for at least a few hours and up to several months or even years; the higher the ratio of spice to alcohol and the greater the surface area of the spice, the faster and more intense the infusion. The flavor will continue to develop over time, and so the longer it infuses, the stronger and more complex your infusion will taste. (Although not necessarily better, since it can become too strong. In this case, add more spirit to dilute.)
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Try cardamom extract instead of vanilla by adding a dozen cardamom pods to 1 cup of whiskey or rum. Let infuse for at least 2 weeks before using in baking or drizzling on ice cream.
Kümmel is a Central European liqueur with an herbal, slightly savory flavor. To make it your own, buy a bottle of a neutral spirit and pour out about a cup to make space for the spices. Add equal parts coriander, caraway, wild mountain cumin, and anise seeds and infuse for at least a month. Sip straight over ice, or swap for gin in your favorite cocktails.
One of the best ways to preserve the flavor of a spice is by infusing it into oil. Oils absorb so much flavor, aroma, and color that infused oils becomes new ingredient altogether, perfect for both cooking and finishing.
To make an infused oil, combine the oil and spices of your choice in a pot and heat gently until the oil has taken on the color, aroma, and flavor of the spice(s). Allow the oil to cool down to room temperature, then strain out the spices or leave them in for a stronger flavor. In a glass bottle or jar, store the infused oil in the refrigerator for up to a few months.
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To make a simple chili oil, gently heat 1 cup of flavorful olive oil with a tablespoon of silk chili flakes. Keep on hand to drizzle over pasta or veggies.
Why it works: Spicy infused oils are excellent to have on hand for finishing pizza, pasta, stir-fries, and roasted vegetable dishes.
To make a spiced ghee, heat a few sticks of butter with fresh garlic and ginger, whole black peppercorns, cumin, and coriander seeds. As the butter starts to simmer, the fat and solids will separate — continually skim the white solids off the top with a small strainer or flat spoon, and discard. After about 20 minutes, the clarified butter will be golden and fragrant. Pour through a sieve over a jar to remove the spices, store in the refrigerator, and use in cooking instead of oil or butter.
Many spices are water-soluble, which means their flavors and aromas release when infused in water. A water infusion makes for a quicker cooking process by extracting flavor before you start cooking. It also makes a flavorful spiced drink.
Hot water makes the fastest infusions, but cold water brings out subtle, complex flavors. To make a hot-water infusion, simply pour hot water over your spices and let the flavors infuse for about 10 minutes. For a cold-water infusion, pour cold water or ice cubes over the spices and refrigerate for 8+ hours or until it has reached the desired potency
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For a hot tea, place a few pieces of hibiscus in a mug and pour boiled water directly over.
Why it works: Most dried herbs and flowers make beautiful tea with either hot and cold water infusions.
Saffron is especially beautiful in a cold infusion. Put about two saffron threads per person into a small bowl with a couple of ice cubes. By the time the ice melts fully, the saffron will have infused into the water, about 20 minutes.