Day 11 of the #40DayHerbalist Challenge
Time Needed: 20-30 minutes
Tools Needed: Small enamel pot
3 cups of water
1 glass canning jar (16oz size or larger)
Fresh ginger root
When preparing herbs in water, it’s important to remember that there are two basic preparations: infusions and decoctions. Infusions are made with lightweight herbal materials like leaves and flowers. Decoctions are made with heavier, denser materials like roots, barks, and dried berries. Although you may find several variations on the directions I’ve outlined below as you get your bearings in the herbal world, let’s look at the most basic ways to prepare herbs as infusions and decoctions.
Once you’ve mastered how to make herbal infusions, you’ve actually mastered how to make several preparations - including herbal baths and compresses! Let’s start with a little question and answer session to help you get started making your own herbal infusions.
How much of an herb is used to make an infusion?
Depending on the herb or the situation, anywhere from 1-3 teaspoons or 1-3 tablespoons of fresh or dried herb may be appropriate. Fresh herbs are less potent than dried herbs, so I find it best to use tablespoons instead of teaspoons for fresh, but tend to use teaspoon measures for dried. Some herbalists like to be very precise and measure their infusion ingredients by weight in grams. Other herbalists will be even less precise and measure in “pinches” or “palm fulls.”
How do you choose between teaspoons and tablespoons?
Tablespoon quantities may be used when working with mild, nutritive herbs or when there is an acute imbalance and the infusion will only be used for a day or two - but not every herb is suited for use in tablespoon quantities, so be sure to research any new herbs you are working with to determine what typical serving sizes for infusions are. Heroic herbs (Aka drop dose botanicals) come to mind here- they need to be used with precision and awareness with the assistance of an experienced herbalist, if at all. (You can refer back to the Herb Safety Scale to refresh your memory on heroic herbs and the other categories). The size and metabolism of the individual using the tea can also be taken into consideration, with the amount of herbs used adjusted up or down accordingly.
What equals one serving of an infusion?
For adults, one serving of an infusion is usually defined as an 8oz cup. A cup of an infusion is commonly used two or three times a day for a week or more when working with a chronic imbalance, or every 3-4 hours over 2-3 days when working with an acute imbalance, gradually decreasing frequency. If desired, an 8 oz serving can be sipped over the course of 30-60 minutes instead of consumed all at once.
How long does an infusion steep?
Herbal infusions commonly steep from 5-10 minutes in a covered cup or pot. The lid helps to keep the aromatic oils from drifting away on the steam. 5-10 minutes is much longer than you would let tea or coffee steep, but that’s because you want as much of the good stuff extracted from your herbs as possible - including the more bitter constituents that you limit by straining most of your for-pleasure drinks before they reach the 5 minute mark.
How to Make an Infusion: Simple Thyme Infusion
You will need:
- 1 tablespoon fresh, finely chopped thyme
- 8 oz of water
1. Place 8 oz of water in a small enamel saucepan with a lid.
2. Bring the water to a boil, turn off the heat, and move the pot to a cool spot on the stove or to a potholder or heat safe trivet on the counter.
3. Remove the lid to add the thyme. Stir gently and briefly with a wooden spoon to help expose the thyme to the hot water, then replace the lid.
4. Allow the infusion to steep for 5-10 minutes, then strain into your mug or teacup. You can add a little natural sweetener of your choice, if desired.
Thyme is more often enjoyed in cooking than as a tea, but I enjoy the woodsy taste and aroma. It’s often in my cup in the winter as an herb for respiratory support, but it’s also good in any season as a gentle nervine that’s supportive of emotional and mental health, or as an after dinner tea to support healthy digestion.
Infusions can also be made directly in your teacup or mug by using a strainer or tea ball, by the way.
Decoctions may seem a little trickier to make than an infusion, but the main difference between the two is time. I’ll walk you through making a basic ginger root decoction below, but first let’s have a decoction Q&A.
How much of an herb is used to make a decoction?
Usually you will want to make a whole day’s worth of a decoction at once, because it is more time consuming than making an infusion. So it’s best to prepare your decoction using weight ratios. I have seen herbalists use 1 oz of dried herb by weight per 32 oz of water by volume (Ricco Cech in Making Plant Medicine), or 1 oz of herbs by weight per 16oz of water by volume (James Green in The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook). Also, as per Cech, you can use a handful of dried herbs per 32 oz (which is my favorite method, since there’s no need to break out the kitchen scale).
However, if I want to prepare a single serving of decoction (Say, for ginger root, which is often used as a “one cup when you feel like it” herb to support the digestive system), I will use the same guidelines as for infusions (8 oz of water and 1-3 teaspoons of dried herb, or 1-2 tablespoons of fresh berries or roots).
How does the process for making a decoction differ from making an infusion?
Decoctions differ from infusions in three ways: pre-soaking the herbs; simmering the herbs; and adding water at the end. To make a decoction, the herbs are added to an enamel saucepan with the desired amount of cool water and allowed to soak for about 2 hours so the herbs can begin to soften. If you are pressed for time you can skip the soaking- but it is a good idea to do it if you have time. After soaking, the heat is turned up and the herbs are allowed to simmer for 10-20 minutes. After the decoction cools, it is strained into a glass canning jar or heat safe measuring cup, and enough cool water is added back to bring it up to the original measurement. You can pour the water through the herbs in the strainer if you want to do so, just to catch any last bit of goodness from them.
What amount equals one serving of a decoction?
If you have made 16oz or 32oz of decoction you have made 4 servings at once. 16oz of decoction will make 4oz servings, and 32oz of decoction yields 8oz servings.
How to Make a Fresh Ginger Root Decoction
You will need:
- 1 tablespoon of peeled, finely chopped fresh ginger root
- 8oz of water
1. Place 1 tablespoon of finely chopped ginger into an enamel saucepan with 8 oz of cool water.
2. With the lid on, slowly bring the water to a simmer and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat and allow the ginger to cool to a comfortable drinking temperature.
4. Strain out the ginger root and pour your ginger decoction into your favorite mug or teacup. If you like, you can sweeten with your favorite natural sweetener.
Fresh ginger decoction is one of those things that’s so simple to make it’s easy to forget how good it is. I enjoy fresh ginger decoctions to warm me up in winter, help settle my stomach when I’m not feeling well, and to help clear my head for sinus and allergy-season support.
Herbs + Water: More Things You Can Make
If you want to use ingredients that need to infused with those that need to be decocted in the same preparation, complete your decoction first. Once you have strained the decoction, return it to the saucepan and bring it back to a simmer with the lid on. Add the ingredients that need to be infused, replace the lid, and remove the saucepan from the heat for 5-10 minutes while the infusion finishes. Strain and enjoy!
Marshmallow is an example of an herb with lots of mucilage - ie, it’s a little bit slimy. That sliminess is a good thing, though, and it can be maximized by preparing a cold infusion.
Nutritive herbs like nettle and oatstraw can be prepared as an infusion but then transferred to the refrigerator to continue steeping overnight. Some herbalists call these nourishing infusions or super infusions, I like plain old “overnight steep”. I don’t recommend letting them sit out on the counter overnight to steep. That puts them in the “bacteria has a party” temperature range for too long, and trusting an herb’s “antibacterial” properties to such an extent seems unwise to me- not only has the herb probably been in contact with dirt at some point, but unless your jar is sterilized you could also have a cross contamination issue with other things in your kitchen. Sure, people did it before refrigeration was invented - but that doesn’t mean you need to tempt fate.
You can put your infusion ingredients in a clean, sterilized jar in full sunlight and let the heat of the sun infuse them for you. Probably not a good idea if you have a compromised or depressed immune system (see my note above in overnight steeps). Personally, I am comfortable doing this as long as I start with a squeaky clean jar and ingredients. I wash my fresh herbs under clean running water before packing them into the jar and only do solar infusions in the summer, but it can be fun to hang out in the shade with a book while your tea is making in the garden!
By soaking a clean cloth in an infusion or decoction, you can apply the preparation topically as a compress. This technique is especially helpful when you are working with herbal support for the skin, muscles, or eyes. I like using compresses of aromatic herbs like peppermint and thyme across my cheeks or forehead for extra support when I feel stuffy and congested - the warmth and the aromatic steam are nice. You can pour strained infusions and decoctions directly into the bath to soak up your herbal goodness (I find it’s especially good for nervines and herbs that are being used for skin and muscle support). An herbal steam is another way to use herbs for respiratory support or as a pampering home spa activity. Instead of placing a lid or saucer over your infusion, you can drape a towel over your head and your infusion and enjoy the steam. Don’t do this over an actively boiling pot or hold your face too close to the steam - you want to be comfortable and enjoy the experience, not burn yourself!
As you can see, knowing how to make infusions and decoctions opens the door to quite a few things that you can do with herbs + water. If you like, you can check out my article, Practical and Creative Uses for Herbal Teas to discover even more ideas.
Read on below for today's mission!
Agatha is the author of the popular new herbal recipe book, Adaptogens: Your Guide to Radiant Health!