I still remember my first city garden: a 4-by-5-foot, cinderblock raised bed in the corner of a tiny, concrete backyard. I was so excited to finally have dirt of my own that I ran to the nursery and bought one of every kind of seedling they carried. Of course, the fruits of my reckless abandon were almost entirely zucchini, and I wept as I watched those courgettes overgrow everything—except the herbs! Undaunted, the peppermint, thyme and oregano thrived, providing me with far more flavoring and garnish than my poor vegetable harvest, limited cooking repertoire and small family required. Little did I know it was a first step toward becoming an herbalist.
That summer, using my herb haul to the fullest became my goal. Certainly, I could dry or freeze the overage, but that seemed a lackluster end for my accidental herbal triumph. Besides, how much dried thyme was I likely to use over the years before my efforts withered to tasteless, grayish-green dust?
Dinner out for my birthday solved the dilemma. I chose olive oil and vinegar to dress my salad, and the waiter brought two fancy bottles of fragrant liquid. One contained the familiar golden-green olive oil, but the other had a prize dancing inside: a lovely sprig of rosemary. The flavor of that herb-infused vinegar was fantastic. Eureka!
The next day, I began researching how to make herbed vinegars and found it far simpler than I had imagined. In addition, I discovered that my garden bounty would be just as happy to share its flavor, nutrition and healing properties with many other edible and medicinal liquids, and I could prepare a wide range of herbal products right in my own kitchen.
In the years since, I’ve studied with several herbalists and created many herbal preparations. Being an herbalist is delicious fun and very satisfying. To date, the most difficult part remains figuring out which amazing concoction to make next.
Meet the Menstruums
The mechanics of crafting herbal products are quite straightforward. The plant is combined with a liquid, or menstruum (the herbalist word for “solvent”), given time to infuse and then strained out. Then the final product is ready to be enjoyed. Aside from water, which yields preparations with a short shelf life, the menstruums most widely used by cooks and herbalists are vinegar, oil, honey and alcohol. Each has specific culinary and medicinal applications because every menstruum has a specialty: Some render specific plant constituents into solution, making those nutrients more available for assimilation in our bodies, and others provide a unique and focused delivery system for herbal benefits.
Vinegar has an acidity that makes it a premier extractor of minerals. In The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements (1997), researcher Paul Bergner explains how modern agriculture and lifestyles deplete our bodies of minerals and the health crises that can ensue. Herbal vinegars contain a wealth of health-enhancing minerals.
Herbalist and author Susun Weed suggests lavishly dressing cooked greens with herbal vinegars to assist the absorption of the minerals inside the vegetables, and drinking a large spoonful in a glass of water as a mineral tonic.
Herbed vinegars can also be used externally and make great hair rinses, deodorants and antifungal washes.
Your end use will determine which type of vinegar you choose to infuse. Supplement or medicinal-quality herb vinegars are usually crafted with either raw or pasteurized apple-cider vinegar. For a gourmet salad dressing, try vinegar made from wine or champagne. Distilled white vinegar can also be augmented with herbs but remains best reserved for cleaning your home.
Oils excel at delivering a plant’s benefits to the skin and underlying tissues and, if prepared and stored properly, can also be ingested. Using extra virgin olive oil is recommended if you plan to consume your herbal oil; its high phenol content complements the nutritional value of the herbs.
Some herbalists use olive oil exclusively, while others employ a variety of seed and nut oils for external applications, such as massage or bath oils. Herb-infused oils can be taken a step further and fashioned into salves, creams and lip balms by incorporating beeswax or other thickeners.
Honey is high in protein and vitamins and is antibacterial. Raw honey is pure, unheated, unpasteurized and unprocessed. Being hydroscopic, or water-loving, honey extracts the water-soluble constituents of plants. It also readily absorbs their flavorful volatile oils.
Many of the oils in aromatic herbs are antibacterial, magnifying the anti-infective quality of the honey and the herb. Honey is an effective skin soother, and herbal honeys are as at home in the first-aid kit and the cosmetic face masque as they are in the kitchen.
The herbalist uses alcohol to collect and concentrate alkaloids and other non-nutritive, medicinal components of plants. Known as tinctures, herb-alcohol extracts are usually taken internally.
Many herbalist texts cite 100-proof vodka as the perfect menstruum for tinctures because of its balance of alcohol and water, while some herbalists swear by brandy.
Whichever alcohol you choose, be aware that 80-proof tinctures require a proportionally larger dose than 100-proof tinctures.
A Passion for Flavor
All herbalists have different tendencies when making preparations, and over time, your personal style will come through.
To my taste buds, all of the mints make terrific infusions. Spearmint vinegar was a revelation for me. Chocolate-mint honey on pancakes—made with the plant called chocolate mint, no cocoa involved—gives maple syrup a real run for its money!
Herbalist Susan Hoffman favors classic cooking herbs in her vinegars.
“Dill [pictured above] is great, and tarragon is incredible,” she says.
In Susun Weed’s online mini course, she invites people to: “Pick the needles of white pine on a sunny day. Make herbal vinegar with them. Inhale deeply the scent of the forest. I call this my ‘homemade balsamic vinegar.’ ”
Explore Your Herbs
Randomly pairing garden herbs and menstruums is fun, and the results can be delightful. However, for the ultimate benefit, consider which properties of the plant you wish to highlight and which menstruum will most effectively make them available. In order to use different components of your plants, or to emphasize internal or external application, you may decide to make several preparations of the same herb using multiple menstruums.
As with many foods, most garden herbs perform triple duty, providing sensory enjoyment, general nutrition and specific health-enhancing benefits. The ability of peppermint’s volatile oils to soothe a nonulcerated upset stomach is common knowledge. How about adding some peppermint-infused honey to your after-dinner digestive tea? That rosemary I spied at the restaurant happens to be a centuries-old remedy for arthritis, headaches, bruises and cuts. Maybe both a tincture and oil are called for.
According to a 2005 report from the British Journal of Nutrition, “Antioxidant capacity of vegetables, spices and dressings relevant to nutrition,” the addition of marjoram increases a salad’s antioxidant capacity by 200 percent. Pass me the marjoram vinegar, please!
The more you learn about the nutritional and healing properties of the herbs you grow, the better you will be able to take advantage of what they have to offer.
The equipment list for making herbal products is not exotic at all. Here are the things that you should have:
- glass jars and bottles in a variety of sizes, some with plastic lids or caps. (Wide-mouth is better. Baby-food jars are excellent for making small amounts or samples.)
- chopsticks or a long, thin spoon
- a regular teaspoon or tablespoon
- a funnel
- labels and a waterproof pen
- waxed paper or plastic wrap
- a knife and chopping board
- small bowls or plates
- a small cooking pot (optional)
Follow the Rules
These are the basic steps for infusing herbs. Be sure to read and incorporate the additional menstruum-specific details before proceeding!
- Coarsely chop your herb.
- Fill a jar with the chopped plant.
- Top off the jar with the menstruum.
- Stir until well-mixed.
- Make sure the jar is completely full; do not leave any airspace between the menstruum and the lid. Push all the plant material under the liquid. Add more menstruum if needed.
- Cap tightly and label. Include the name of the herb, the part you used (flowers, leaves, roots), the menstruum and the date.
- Place the jar on a plate or bowl to catch drips. Set aside at room temperature, away from direct sunlight.
- Check the following day to see if any of the menstruum has evaporated, seeped out or been siphoned off by the “plant fairies.” (Believe me: It happens.) Top off if needed.
- Shake every few days, and observe your creation, noting any changes. Color and texture shifts are normal; new growth is not, and it could be mold. If in doubt, consult an herbalist or book and/or discard.
- Allow to infuse for the appropriate amount of time.
- Decant the infusion, straining out the plant material. Rebottle and relabel. Store at room temperature, out of direct sunlight.
Warnings and Exceptions
Make sure you’re informed of each herb’s different exceptions, variables and warnings, including some that might make you ill, when infusing vinegars, oils, honey and tinctures for consumption.
Here are some general handling guidelines to be aware of.
Chop the herb finely to increase its surface area and extract more nutrients.
Use a plastic lid or place wax paper or plastic wrap under a metal lid when capping the jar because vinegar will corrode metal.
Once decanted, vinegars keep well for at least a year. Some herbalists keep their vinegars much longer, checking periodically to make sure they still smell good.
If you use raw vinegar, a slimy, mucoid disc may form at the top of your jar. This is the vinegar “mother.” It’s harmless and can be removed without consequence to your infusion.
Plants and jars must be impeccably dry or mold is likely to form. If you see mold at any time, discard the infusion.
Harvest herbs after the sun has dried all the dew and never within 36 hours of rain to avoid introducing moisture into your infusion that could cause rancidity.
Make oils in small batches. Discard if they begin to smell rancid. Store in the refrigerator for the longest shelf life.
Warning: Infusing fresh plants in oil can foster the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which may be fatal if ingested or applied to an open wound. Avoid contact with broken skin. According to the Oregon State University Extension, edible herbed oils held under refrigeration are safe to consume for up to three weeks.
Mixing anything with sticky honey can be a challenge! Use chopsticks to coax the honey to the bottom of the jar or warm it gently to liquefy before adding to the herb.
Herb-infused honeys are ready for use after two days but become more medicinally potent if left the full six weeks.
Don’t be surprised if the honey becomes thinner as it infuses.
Warning: Honey carries the spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria. While honey is perfectly safe for adults to ingest, it should never be fed to children who are younger than 12 months old.
These are potent medicines, not foods. Educate yourself on dosages and use. The shelf life of tinctures is indefinite if kept cool, dark and tightly capped.
Embrace Your Style
Herbalists are people, and people vary. Some herbalists gently wash and dry their fresh herbs no matter what; some rinse the plants only if they are obviously soiled. Some warm all menstruums to wrist temperature before adding plants; some never heat anything. Some shake their infusions daily; some leave them sitting. Some use dried herbs in their products; others consider that sacrilegious.
Herbalists are ordinary people, too, and sometimes they will tell you to do what’s been recommended to them as best practice instead of their actual practice. I have read sources that recommend sterilizing your jars and lids and dipping your plants in diluted bleach before using them. I have never done this myself, nor have I met people who do more than wash their jars with hot, soapy water.
Use common sense, research and your own preferences as guides to the sanitization of products intended for your personal use. All the herbalists I know agree on these general guidelines:
- Positively ID the plants being used.
- Make sure the herb is not wet or contaminated with animal excrement or chemicals.
- Keep all jars, lids and other equipment clean and dry.
- Clearly label everything you create.
Making and using your own herbal preparations is simple and empowering; it requires and yields an enhanced sense of personal responsibility. Turning your garden’s herbs into vinegars, honeys, oils and tinctures not only preserves your harvest, it grants you greater flexibility in enjoying the many flavors and health benefits of the herbs you love to grow.
The Making of an Herbalist
“I encourage everybody to make a little jar of something yourself because you will feel so good about doing it,” says herbalist Susan Hoffman, who spends blissful workdays in her lush gardens in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Her family-run company, Wild Hill Soap & Herbals of Vermont, crafts a wide range of herbal products entirely by hand, transforming infusions, plant essences and essential oils into unique and practical products.
Today, Hoffman’s herbal wisdom appears innate, but this was not always the case.
Q: What made you decide herbalism was your path?
A: When I became pregnant with my daughter, I broke out in a severe rash from head to toe. Regular doctors had absolutely nothing for me, so I started my journey of exploring other options and herbalism just jumped right up in there. Like so many people, I discovered my passion through my trauma. I had no idea how much herbs would change my life. It was love at first sight. And it keeps getting better.
Q: How did your herbalist business begin?
A: I attended Rosemary Gladstar’s apprenticeship program in 1994 and then her Advanced Herbalist program. The business happened the next year.
I never actually decided to start a business. I just did what I did and shared it.
Q: What do you think about people making herbal vinegars, oils, honeys and tinctures in their own kitchens?
A: I think it’s incredible. I think it’s fabulous. I think everybody should do it! It’s the way it’s supposed to be. I believe we are meant to make and grow our own food, make our own medicine and nourish ourselves with what we have around us. It’s so much better if you make your own. When you grow or make something with purpose, it’s like cooking a meal for your beloved. You are so happy to be doing it that the food becomes magic for that person because of all you put into it.
This article appeared in Healing Herbs, a specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece, Healing Herbs includes articles on herbs that can help with pain relief, sleeplessness and stress relief; herbs for teas; how to cut and dry herbs; preparing and preserving herbs; and foraging for medicinal herbs; and becoming an herbalist. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Living Off the Grid and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.