I have a few strongly-held beliefs guiding my home cooking this spring. 1) A well-constructed snack plate is a complete and worthy dinner. 2) Green goddess dressing is due a renaissance. And 3) Everyone should make or buy one good bottle of infused olive oil.
Infused olive oil is sometimes made by steeping fresh or dried herbs, citrus peels or spices in olive oil until the flavor has completely absorbed. It can also be made by flash-frying herbs or spices in olive oil and straining the oil for later use.
And when I tell you that it can change your meals instantly, I'm being completely serious. I use olive oil a ton in my daily cooking, so using it also to lend more flavor to my food — especially for meals that are in steady rotation in my kitchen and have begun to verge on monotony — is an immediate win. Come warmer weather, I'm always ready to reach for my citrus-infused oils. But there are so many flavor options out there that there's room for versatility.
It's also really easy to make at home with items from your windowsill garden, those almost-wilted herbs languishing in your fridge or spices that have almost outlived their peak freshness. There are also some absolutely gorgeous store bought bottles if you're past the point of pandemic-era DIY culinary projects.
Here's your Saucy-approved guide to infused oils.
How do I infuse oil at home?
Cold infusion is probably the simplest way to start out making flavored oils at home. Use a food processor or spice mill to very finely mince fresh or small ingredients like tender herbs, fresh chili peppers, cloves of garlic, peppercorns or citrus peel. Combine with the oil, mixing until fully incorporated. For a stronger flavor, allow the mixture to rest for longer — up to four hours. Once you're ready, completely strain the solids from the oil and store it in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Typically, you'll want to add a half cup to a cup of loosely-packed unchopped herbs to a quart of oil, but you can adjust based on herb potency and personal preference.
Consider this an opportunity to get creative with flavor profiles you already like in other dishes. One of my favorite combinations has been a chive and black peppercorn-infused olive oil, which made for a killer salad dressing (my blood orange and rosemary-infused oil was just a touch too herbaceous).
If you plan on using dried ingredients — like preserved citrus peel or dried herbs and chiles — you can try heated infusion. Slowly heat a quart of oil to no higher than 150 degrees. Add the oil to a covered container (a Mason jar would be ideal) and add the ingredients to steep with the oil. Since this mixture does not have to be refrigerated, don't use any fresh ingredients or you could risk contamination.
Can I buy infused oil?
Store-bought infused oils have some definite pros and cons. The biggest upsides is that most are shelf stable and you don't have to worry about the food safety involved in making them at home. I've also purchased some infused oils that are absolutely magical; Brightland's special edition ARDOR oil made with red chili peppers, chipotle peppers and paprika is a recent example, as is Fustini's blood orange olive oil.
However, the issue with some store-bought olive oils is that, until you reach a certain price point, they can taste really artificial — like overwhelmingly pungent or even a little rancid. Nice infused olive oil starts at about $25 for 12 ounces, but it's absolutely worth it to get the good stuff.
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Once you make or buy infused olive oil, what do you do with it? Here are some suggestions:
Vinaigrettes and Dips
So, you can and should just straight up dip things (bread, pita, crudités) into good infused oil. It's one of the easiest and most satisfying snacks — or snack-dinners when you just can't bring yourself to turn on the oven, especially with sweltering temperatures on the horizon.
But flavored oils are also a shortcut to more flavorful dressings and dips. A standard vinaigrette has a basic ratio behind it: three parts oil to one part acid. With that in mind, give yourself permission to get creative. Try combining habanero-infused oil with lime juice and some finely-chopped cilantro. Go for garlic-infused oil with lemon juice and fresh dill and parsley.
Additionally, as I've written before, I'm a big fan of really simple homemade dips. Whisk together some chive oil with labneh and a handful of leftover herbs for a creamy vegetable dip, or use flavored oil to give some oomph to homemade hummus, pesto or romesco.
Another place where you'll notice an immediate difference from using flavored olive oil is when making pasta. Toss garlic-infused olive oil with spaghetti, red pepper flakes and some parmesan cheese for a quick play on spaghetti aglio e olio. Do the same with lemon-infused olive oil and a splash of heavy cream for a lazy spaghetti al limone.
For a simple, no-cook pasta sauce, combine fresh or canned crushed tomatoes with basil-infused olive oil and a generous (more generous than you think) pinch of salt. It's perfect spooned over supermarket tortellini or frozen gnocchi for a dinner that comes together in about 15 minutes.
Also, next time you make lasagna, use rosemary-infused olive oil to finish your mushrooms or sausage before layering it in.
Greens, Beans and Proteins
Infused oils are also a great way to give pantry staples a lift, especially if you're stuck in a dreaded flavor rut. Some preparations that have personally changed my at-home lunches: quickly fry an egg in chili-infused olive oil and toss it over some leftover rice and scallions; drizzle lemon-infused olive oil over a bowl of brothy white beans for some much-needed acid; quickly wilt greens in garlic-infused oil and pile them on a thick hunk of toast slathered with the aforementioned hummus.
Infused oil is also a great way to finish blanched or grilled vegetables. Mint-infused olive oil over sugar snap peas is the way to go for an easy spring side dish.
While it's easy to think of ways to riff with flavored oils in savory cooking, they're also a great addition to your baking recipes. One of the most straightforward ways is by using citrus-infused olive oils to boost the flavor in olive oil cakes. For example, I love making Karen Tedesco's orange flower olive oil cake from "Family Style" with blood orange-flavored oil.
If you want to go savory, focaccia is a bread that uses a hefty amount of olive oil and takes flavor — rosemary, garlic, basil — really, really well. After setting the bread in your pan and dimpling your dough, drizzle the infused olive oil on top before baking.
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