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ADD TOUCH OF FLAVOR TO YOUR `PRIVATE STOCK'

Here's how to make flavored oils: Start by sterilizing glass bottles. It is best to choose small, specially-designed, all-glass jars and bottles with rubber rings and clamps. Oils can turn rancid after opening, and small amounts will be used more quickly. Before you start making anything to be preserved, it is important that all bottles, jars, and lids be clean, free of cracks and sterile. Follow these sterilizing techniques:

-Clean and wash the bottles, jars and lids in hot water with detergent. Rinse thoroughly in hot water.-Put a wire rack in the bottom of a large, deep saucepan, and place the bottles and jars on it.

-Pour in enough water to cover the bottles and jars. Bring to a boil and boil rapidly for 10 minutes. Remove from the water with sterilized tongs and turn them upside down to drain on a thick kitchen towel. Scald the lids.

-Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Dry the sterilized bottles and jars in the oven. They can be kept warm in the oven until needed or, if the recipe requires putting the oil into a cold container, leave them to cool. Leave the lids to dry thoroughly on a kitchen towel.

-Select your flavorings

If you are using herbs, they should be freshly picked and lightly dried on paper towels to remove excess moisture, then bruised lightly (see recipes) to release their aroma immediately. Dried spices, such as cinnamon sticks, peppercorns and chilies, should be as fresh as possible so that their maximum flavor is extracted. Fresh garlic cloves lend pungency but should only be used in small amounts. If garlic is added to flavor the oil, it is important to keep the oil refrigerated and to use it within two weeks.

Insert the prepared flavorings into the bottles, then pour in the oil to fill and cover all the ingredients (so mold cannot grow). Seal the bottles.

Leave for about two weeks in a cool, dark place. During this time the flavor will develop in the oil, so taste it occasionally to see when it is ready to use. Shake the bottle a few times, especially if it contains ingredients, such as paprika that settle on the bottom. If you prefer the flavor not to get any stronger at this stage, or if you want the oil to last longer (particularly if it contains fresh ingredients), strain it through a double layer of cheesecloth into freshly sterilized bottles. For decoration and easy identification, a fresh herb sprig can be added to herb oils, or a twist of orange or lemon zest to citrus oils.

-How to seal and store:

Seal tightly in bottles with noncorrosive screw-top lids, label, (don't forget to include date) then keep in the refrigerator for three to six months. The storage time will depend on the flavoring of the oil. Those that contain fresh ingredients, such as herbs or fruits, unless strained first, will only last about three months. Oils that have been infused with dried ingredients will last about six months.

What can go wrong (and why):

A flavored oil will become cloudy if its flavoring, such as fresh onions, contains too much water. If this happens, use up the oil as soon as possible, because it can quickly become rancid. Other reasons for an oil turning rancid are incorrect storage, faulty sealing of bottles, and contact with direct sunlight and heat.

-From "Clearly Delicious - An Illustrated Guide to Preserving, Pickling & Bottling," by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Time for an `oil change' in the kitchen?

Infusing oils with a single flavor or a mix of compatible herbs and spices is a great way to personalize gifts for friends or just create your own "private stock."

Aromatic fruits, such as oranges, lemons or limes can add an interesting and distinctive flavor to an oil. Or create a pretty effect using flowering herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, added to the finished bottle.

Today's cooks have a wide choice of oils to work from - each with a specific flavor.

Everyday oils - corn, canola, safflower, and sunflower - are guaranteed not to dominate the taste of the ingredients with which they are combined; these oils are generally suitable for infusing with more pungent herbs and spices.

Luxury oils - including walnut and hazelnut, and the exotics, such as mustard oil used in Indian cooking, and the bright orange, nutty palm oil used in Brazilian cooking, already have their own distinctive tastes and are not usually chosen for making flavored oils.

The greatest of all the oils for flavoring is olive, and the best quality is extra-virgin oil, made from the first cold pressing of the finest olives.