Category Archives: Ointments, Unguents and Balms

Locally Made Ointments?

I had originally planned on rendering lard to make an ointment but I honestly couldn’t find a reference to this being a Celtic practice, although I feel almost certain that it was done.   I did find an interesting description of a healing salve made with golden rod, self-heal and butter. (Hopman, 2010, p. 143)  Unfortunately I couldn’t find the exact process, so I was forced to experiment.   My first attempt was atrocious.   I tried making an infused oil by melting down the butter and adding the goldenrod and self-heal.   It was less than successful.  The butter clarified and it seemed to cook the herbs rather than draw any of the constituents out of them.     The other day some friends and I were chatting about a method for making an infused milk preparation.

I decided that if an infusion could be made with milk,  I could infuse cream and then make the butter from the infused cream    So I put 2 cups of whipping cream and some fresh goldenrod and self-heal leaves in a small pan and turned the burner on to the lowest setting and just let it sit there, overnight.

goldenrod infused creamIn the morning you can see that the cream had taken on some of the goldenrod’s color. Seeing that as a good sign,  I strained the cream and whipped it into butter.   I won’t lie to you here, I used my kitchen aid.  Churning butter is one of the chores I don’t miss from my youth.  But it could be done if necessary.  After the butter solids formed. I strained them and let them  drain for a while.

Then I paddled the butter to get out the excess moisture.  The yellow color here is not the natural color of butter, it is actually quite pale unless annatto has been added. I ended up with five ounces of goldenrod-self-heal ointment and eight ounces of buttermilk that I am going to save to make face cream with later in the week.
I  am actually really excited by how well this turned out.   Ointment making is usually pretty costly because it involves using oils that you have to order in and beeswax.   This is a low cost alterIMG_9708native.  Butter freezes well, so this would keep indefinitely without the worry of the salve going rancid.  Of course this first batch wasn’t a very economical use of time given the trial-and-error process which resulted in the first botched batch.    The fact that I started with a very small amount of cream so as not to waste it if it didn’t turn out properly, also made it less cost effective.  I would want to do this in larger batches in the future.

It is also amazing because I made it entirely from local products. I knew that this had to be possible because traditional use of ointments occurred long before trade routes would have been established for procuring oils.   I am going to continue to look for a reference which discusses making ointments from rendered animal fats, due to concerns I have about people with dairy sensitivities using this product.

I have heard a theory that short-chain fatty acids have a greater trans-dermal effect, meaning that they are absorbed more easily.  I decided to research the size of the fatty acid chains present in butter and was pleased to find that it has a “larger amount of short-chain fatty acids” (Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, 2013)  This may account for more effective results, but I want to test that theory further. I am going to give the one ounce testers out for some feedback.   If it is positive, I might start making more ointments this way.    I am probably a little too excited about this prospect.

My “Perfect” Cream

Perfect Face CreamI have had a lot of people ask me how I made the creams that I put in my gift baskets at the silent auction at the céili and I promised I would add this post today.  I almost skipped it.

I planned on posting about making the  “perfect” cream.   Then my cream turned out to be not so perfect, this time.   In the past,  I would have probably opted to wait and try again before blogging about it.   Since overcoming the perfectionist tendencies that sometimes slow me down is a huge part of my intentions for this year,  I sort of forced myself to post this anyway.  Despite my less-than-perfect results.

I remember my first batch of cream that turned out just right. I finally felt as though I had arrived as an “herbalist grown” at the moment I tipped the jar upside down and the cream was firm enough that it didn’t run out of the jar. Making cream involves emulsifying oil and water and that, my friends, is not a quick-and-simple task.  Anyone who tells you differently is fibbing to you.   Still,  I thought I would explain my method for those who want to give it a go.  I think it is easier than some, I’ve seen.    Absolutely crucial to this process is a blender.  I prefer to use my immersion blender, but an old -fashioned one will work just as well.

The idea of a cream is to use equal amounts of lipids and liquids. It is a good idea for your lipids to contain beeswax, 1/3 fat and 2/3 oil.  (The difference between a fat and oil is that fat becomes solid at room temperature)   A tiny amount of lanolin is a beautiful, and in my opinion necessary, addition.

So on one side,  today’s recipe was 1/3 cup  coconut oil and 1/2 ounce beeswax melted together and mixed with  2/3 cup of rose-infused olive oil which I had made in the fall.    The other side was 1/3 cup aloe vera gel (which started out as a frozen blob) and enough rose hydrosol to bring it level to the other side.    That is the first trick I’ve learned.   Don’t measure your liquid ingredients exactly.  Match the level of the lipid ingredients.

The next trick is  to honestly wait until the oils are at room temperature.  You will be able to tell when they are cool.   They become kind of creamy and opaque.   It helps if you give them a quick stir with your immersion blender now and again to keep the oil and fat mixed. You can put the mixture in a cold water bath, but then you run the risk of the oils being too cold.   Again.  the key is to have everything at room temperature.  It is kind of like making mayonnaise.

Once the oils are at room temperature, you start to blend the two sides by very slowly trickling the liquids into the lipids– blending the whole while.   It will start to turn white and creamy and eventually it will resemble something liked whipped butter cream.  This sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?

The thing is that it is all about patience when making cream.    Sometimes,  you think you’ve waited long enough but you’ve rushed the cooling process and you end up with lotion rather than cream.  Alternately you trickle the water in too quickly and the two substances don’t aerate properly and you have made some sort of  gooey water.    Sometimes you over-mix and your cream starts to sweat once it sets up.

Don’t worry too much.   I’ve never botched a batch so badly that I couldn’t use it.    As I mentioned today on Facebook,  I firmly believe the inventor of lotion was someone who had botched a batch of face cream.  You never know you might even luck out and the cream will set up as it cools.   Next time you can experiment  with using more beeswax or maybe a tad more coconut oil and less olive oil.  Or you could try a different fat.  Shea butter makes a firmer cream than coconut oil.   The point is not to become discouraged.  This is supposed to be fun, remember?

This afternoon, it was not looking hopeful for today’s batch so I put it in the fridge and waited, a bit.

This is what I ended up with and while it survived the “upside down test” while cold I am leaving it out overnight to see what happens at room temperature.   I am guessing it won’t hold in the morning.    If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I’d say it is because I subconsciously skimped on the beeswax.   I am down to my last lovely pound of local beeswax and I am hoarding at this point until I find a reliable source.    You know what,  it still smells wonderful and it will work just the same.


Making Herbal Preparations

This is just enough to get you started making preparations for personal use there’s a lot more that goes into it if you’re making them to market or for clients.

An infusion is much more potent than a tea thus increasing its medicinal value. To make an infusion put one ounce of herbs in a quart-canning jar. I tend to just use a fistful but that doesn’t seem very technical. Bring a kettle of water to boil. Fill the jar to the top with boiling water and put a lid on it. The type of herb you are steeping determines the time I generally like to steep infusions overnight when possible but I use these as my minimum guidelines.    Leaves = 4 hours   Flowers = 2 hours

(Editors Note: Febuary 2008 – Recently, I have had great luck making my infusions in thermal carafes that I have picked up at thrift stores. You can pop the herbs and hot water in one of those in the evening before you go to bed and then wake up to a steaming cup of an infusion. Having a lid on that tightly really seems to keep the essential oils in the brew. I sometimes see little oil droplets on the surface of my infusions.)


A decoction is made when you simmer the herbal ingredients to bring out it’s properties. Do this by placing herb material in cold water in a saucepan. Cover and place on heat, simmering the liquid until it is reduced in volume by half. I generally find this takes about forty minutes but of course you will be using a different pan than me. For a really potent decoction, you can remove the pan from the heat and let the liquid sit covered overnight. Decoctions keep for a longer time than infusions. Since they take a bit of time to prepare you can add 1 tablespoon of pleasant tasting liqueur to every 4 ounces of decoction to help preserve the decoction. Decoctions are used when preparing barks, roots, berries, seeds.

Think of the types of herbs you would normally find in a chai. Chai is a decoction.  As a matter of fact, most decoctions are well served by warming them up and adding a bit of milk (or almond milk, hazelnut milk, coconut milk) and honey as many of the herbs used in decoctions are quite strong.

I will be honest in that I don’t make syrups often other than beverage syrups.   I really don’t like to cook my herbs any more than necessary and there is just too much sweet in syrups for my taste.

One way to make make a syrup heat is to heat one cup of a strong decoction or infusion in a sauce pan. Once the liquid is hot add 1/4 cup honey. Simmer for a bit and then pour into a bottle.


Elixers can be substituted for syrups and quite frankly I prefer them as there is no heat involved so you don’t run the risk of losing the medicinal properties of the herbs. I tend to make simple elixirs and mix them together. Elder Flower and Lemon Balm make a nice anti-flu elixir. Rose and Lemon Balm make a nice nervine elixir.  I almost always add rosehips to my mixtures as a bit of vitamin C never hurts and I think they improve the flavor. You can add spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger to the elixir also.

To make an elixir, select your herbal material and macerate enough to fill a pint jar. Pour about 2/3 of a cup of raw, local honey over the herbal material and then fill the jar with a nice tasting brandy or other alcohol of your preference ( I like Jamesons). Let this steep for about six weeks. Then strain the mixture and enjoy.


The best tinctures are made from fresh plants, without a doubt. There is some disagreement as to the effectiveness of using dried herbs to make tinctures. You will have to experiment and make your own decisions. Fresh herb tinctures are very easy. Pack a clean sterile jar loosely with chopped plant material. Again, I really like to macerate my herbs when I am using them but that is a matter of personal preference. Pour 100 proof vodka or brandy over the plant material. You can also make herbal vinegars which are wonderful for cooking this way by using a nice apple cider vinegar. Cap the jar and shake the mixture around. I like to use the old fashioned canning jars with glass lids and rubber seals to tincture. It eliminates any worries of a metal taste coming through in your tincture. Top the jar off again and store in a dark place. Remember to label the jar with contents and date. Shake the jars every so often and top off when necessary. Strain the tinctures after six weeks and they are ready to use. Strain into a brown glass jar making sure to squeeze excess liquid from plant material.

When making tinctures from dried herbs use 1 ounce dried herbs per 5 ounces vodka or brandy and follows the procedure above.

Infused Oils

Many oils may be used olive oil works well and resists rancidity. You may use almond oil, coconut oil or safflower oil.  Infused oils can be made from fresh-wilted plants or dried herbs. I recommend making a large batch of healing ointment in the summer with fresh wilted ingredients such as calendula, chamomile, lavender, rosemary and comfrey. However I have had good luck using these herbs if they have been fresh dried. It is very important that water not be used to clean the plant and that all jars are dry and not put in the sun where moisture can condense. Heat jars in the oven for five minutes before filling. These measures will inhibit mold growth. Chop plant material and put in a clean, dry jar. Slowly pour oil over plant filling all the way to the top. Screw on a lid and let the oil infuse for six weeks. Strain the oil into another jar wringing oil from plant material. Let the oil sit for a few days and then pour the oil off the top carefully leaving in water that may settle to the bottom. Store at room temperature in a brown, glass bottle or dark place. Ointments Ointments are my favorite. They are so easy you will wonder why you ever bought those expensive herbal preparations at health food stores. Pour 2 ounces of infused oil into a very small pan. (If you do not have infused oil you can use olive oil mixed with your choice of essential oils or a combination of both.) Place the pan over very low heat and grate 2 tablespoons beeswax into the oil and stir until it is melted. Pour the ointment into a jar and let it set.

Experiment: If it is too thick melt it back down and add more oil. If it is too thin re-melt and add more beeswax.