This was originally posted on the blog in November of 2005. Yes, I’ve really been blogging about this stuff for that long. I thought I’d post it as a page for easier access. I don’t pretend that this covers every single step that I take now. It was written a long time ago, in the days before I had a tincture press and percolations were something I’d never even heard of. Still, it is enough to get you started.
The confusion surrounding the difference between an infusion and a “tea” is the first thing that any good herbalist should clear up for you. When an herb is being used for health-building purposes often people will recommend making a “tea” out of the dried leaves or flowers of an herb. What they mean for you to make is an infusion. An infusion calls for more plant material and is allowed to steep longer thus drawing out far more of an herb’s chemical constituents. An infusion is much stronger than a tea thus increasing its potency and sometimes the intensity of its flavor . 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.
To make an infusion:
Put one ounce of herbs in a quart-canning jar. I tend to prefer the term 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
A decoction is made when you simmer the herbal ingredients , usually to bring out the mineral and nutritive properties of the herbs. Decoctions are used when preparing barks, roots, berries, seeds. Think of the types of herbs you would normally find in a chai. 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.
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 preserve it.
To make a decoction:
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.
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.
To make make a syrup with a minimal amount of “sweet”:
Heat one cup of a strong decoction or infusion in a sauce pan. Once the liquid is warm add 1/4 cup honey (or more if you like). Simmer for a bit and then pour into a bottle. This would need to be kept in the fridge, unless you throw a couple teaspoons of a tincture in it to help preserve it.
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 Berry 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 with a nice tasting brandy to fill a quart jar 3/4 full. Pour about 2/3 of a cup of raw, local honey over the herbal material and then fill the jar and cover the jar Let this steep for about six weeks. Then strain the mixture and enjoy.
Using a tincture press to press out elixirs made with rosehips, elderberries and other dried materials often results in a product with an almost syrup like consistency.
Hydro-ethanolic extracts (tinctures) and Acetums (vinegars)
Not surprisingly in the herbal world, there is some debate as to whether to use fresh or dry plant material for extracting. You will have to experiment and come to your own conclusions. Since the most potent alcohol I can get my hands on in these parts is 150 proof Everclear, when using fresh material I will chop it and let it fresh wilt overnight before making my extract.
To make a hydro-ethanolic extract
Pack a clean, sterile jar loosely with chopped, fresh-wilted plant material. Pour 75% grain alcohol over the plant material. At this point, I really like to macerate my herbs with my stick blender, but that is a matter of personal preference. Cap the jar and shake the mixture around. 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. 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 of 50% (100 proof) vodka or brandy and follow the procedure above.
You can also make herbal vinegars, called acetums, this way by using a nice apple cider vinegar in place of the alcohol. Acetums are wonderful for drawing minerals out of plant material and and can be used in your daily meal preparation.
Infused oils can be made from macerating fresh-wilted plants or dried herbs in oils. Many oils may be used. Olive oil works well and resists rancidity. You may use almond oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil or sunflower seed oil. 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.
To Make an Infused Oil:
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. I keep mine in a second fridge in the garage.
Ointments are my favorite. They are so easy you will wonder why you ever bought those expensive herbal preparations at health food stores. For first aid ointments, called cerates, that I know need to stand up to the heat, I use coconut oil to make my infused oil and then add shea butter and beeswax. I do fun things with my ointments like whipping in tinctures with an immersion blender so I end up with a creme like consistency.
To Make an Ointment:
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. If it is too thick melt it back down and add more oil. If it is too thin re-melt and add more beeswax.