Boiling Point: Caribbean cooks use infused oils

Jim Hillibish

We were in the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, visiting friends. They tipped us to the best way to see the islands.

“Hire a cab all day. Drive around and listen,” they said. You hand the guy 50 bucks and he’s yours for the day. He’ll show you things that are on no tourist maps.

We were driving around and soon learned he has a second job. He’s a chef in a local restaurant. This is only plausible in the V.I.

I figured, hey, for my $50, forget the travelog. Let’s talk food.

Our driver-chef was trained in Spain. When he got to St. Johns, he had “to forget everything” and relearn cookery.

We’d already noticed the food seemed more flavorful. I had a salad that sang herbs. Was it just our imagination, stimulated by the palms and beaches?

The secret ingredient: Infused oils.

“Most North Americans do not know them, so they are a surprise,” he said.

You’ll find these oils in places that do not grow fresh herbs. Oil infusion preserves herbal taste and aroma. It saves money as the oil can be stretched over many meals.

Infused oils can be very expensive, but not if you make your own.

We wound up at his restaurant, called simply “Restaurant.” This is for the locals, not the cruise shippers. With our broiled sea bass, he delivered a tray of cruets, an entire herb cabinet in one place.

The flavors are fresh and bright. You can use the oil to sauté or as a dressing on any entree.

Herbal aroma and flavor are contained in the plant’s natural oils. Steeping them in cooking oil releases them.

Making them at home is easy. Start with a flavorless vegetable oil; cheap is fine. Olive oil may be used for Mediterranean herbs. The rest is up to you.

- Hot infused oil: Warm two cups of oil until it just starts to bubble. Off heat and add flavorings. Allow to cool, strain and bottle it.

- Cold infused oil: Place whole herbs or spices in a bottle. Add warmed oil. Cap and allow to stand for two weeks, then strain.

Your choices with both types are endless. Be sure to taste the herbed oil before bottling. You can add more flavorings to strengthen it or add oil if it’s too strong.

Good candidates for infusion are any whole spice such as allspice, vanilla bean, chilies, cardamom, peppercorns, saffron and star anise. Also mint, garlic, fresh ginger root, curry powder and cilantro.

When using powdered spices, make a paste of them with a little water before adding to oil.

The oils should be refrigerated after opening. Note that infused oils gradually lose their strength over time, so make in small quantities.

A starting point is a teaspoon of spice or a tablespoon of whole herbs per cup of oil. Add sesame oil in small quantities, a teaspoon or less.

OIL FLAVORS (per cup)

Garlic: 2 medium cloves, crushed

Basil: 1/3 cup fresh, 1 teaspoon dried

Chili: 2 dried red chilies chopped

Rosemary: 1 4-inch fresh sprig or 2 tablespoons dried

Pepper: 2 tablespoons whole black or Szechwan peppercorns

Ginger: 2 tablespoons fresh, minced

Provençal: 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 2  whole bay leaves, 2 dried chilies and 2 sprigs time (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

Vanilla: 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Jim Hillibish writes for The Respository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at