Infusions and decoctions are the simplest way to prepare herbs that anyone can do at home in no time at all, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to benefit from these plants. They are also highly customizable to fit your taste preferences and medicinal needs. Here are the basics to get you started. The image above is from The Forest Garden.
An infusion is the simple process of extracting the essence of a plant into a solvent, such as water or oil. Typically, only the aerials of the plant (leaves, flowers, and stems) are used in infusions, because boiling them would destroy their delicate oils, flavors, and chemical constituents. Only enough heat to awaken the flavors and active ingredients are necessary. If you’ve ever made tea, congratulations, you’ve already made an infusion! Fresh herbs are my favorite to use, even though you have to use more of them than you would if they were dried, because the flavor seems fresher and more alive to me. Plus, growing and then using fresh plants right from the garden that is satisfying and healing in itself. There are several different ways to infuse herbs to incorporate them into your diet.
The most common way to make an infusion is with water in a tea. You can make this by boiling water, and the pouring it over your herbs and letting them steep for 4-8 minutes. You can also make lunar and solar infusions.
Solar infusions are often known as “sun tea”. Place your herbs in a large glass jar and fill with filtered or spring water. Cover with either a lid or fabric to prevent debris from falling into your tea and place in a sunny place in your garden. Depending on the strength of the sun, this can take anywhere from all day to just a few hours. The tea is ready when it is fragrant and the liquid is full of color. You can let it cool and drink it as an iced tea, or drink it hot from the warm rays of the sun. I like to use energizing herbs and recipes that open the heart and promote radiancy for solar infusions. For a tea that promotes happiness, I like to use herbs like borage flowers, lemongrass, basil, ginger, lemon balm, st. johns wort, yerba mate, and ginseng. For a heart opening, love-potion style tea, I like cinnamon, damiana, and rose.
Lunar infusions work similarly, but brew in the light of the moon. The full moon is the best time to make a lunar infusion. Prepare it the same way your would a solar infusion, by placing your herbs in a large, glass jar, and filling with filtered or spring water. Cover it and set it somewhere like the roof or the middle of your garden, where it will be in the full rays of the moon all night. You can get extra woo and set crystals, bones, or charms around your infusion to add extra energy to it. The next morning, your infusion will be ready. I like to use calming, “yin” herbs that work with the subtle energy of the moon and promote reflection, intention, and calm. You can try herbs like skullcap and herbs that promote women’s reproductive health. I feel that intention is particularly important with lunar infusions, so use herbs that are abundant around your or that you feel particularly drawn to.
Oil infusions are another easy way to prepare your herbs. You can similarly make a sun infusion, by placing your dried herbs (not fresh herbs, as the water in the herbs can cause the oil to go rancid quickly) in a large glass jar, adding high quality oil to the jar, putting the lid back on, and letting it sit out in the sun all day. In some herbal traditions, the jars are buried in the sand or soil during the summer and left to infuse for up to a month in the heat. If you don’t have the time or space, or it’s the middle of winter and you want to infuse herbs, a simple way is to place your herbs in a glass jar, cover with the oil you intend to use (for medicinal or culinary recipes, I prefer to use extra virgin olive oil), and heat them gently either in a double boiler or on low (200 degrees F) in the oven for 30-60 minutes. Make sure your oil isn’t boiling, as you don’t want to deep fry your herbs. The oil can then be strained and used for cooking, salves, massages, and lotions. You can also leave the herbs in the jar as you use the oil.
A decoction is another way of extracting the essence of herbs and plants through boiling. This method is suitable for tougher parts of plants, such as barks, roots, mushrooms, rhizomes, and stems. A simple infusion is not enough to extract all the chemical constituents of these woodier parts of plants. The process of making a soup stock is similar to making a decoction. Imagine how your soup would taste if you simply poured hot water over the garlic, onions, and other ingredients; it would be mild and rather flavorless. However, simmering these for a longer time increases their flavor. In this way some herbs are similar. Decoctions are often used in preparing traditional Chinese medicine, and you’ll often see pre-assembled packets of herbs for broth in Asian grocery stores.
To make a decoction, you need to first chop up or mash your herbs. Add them to a pot on the stove, add spring or filtered water, and bring to a boil. Once the water has begun to boil, lower the heat and let simmer for at least 20 minutes. Strain, then use. I use this method whenever I make ginger tea or broth.
A few roots cannot be prepared as a decoction, such as goldenseal root and valerian root, as their volatile oils are very delicate and would be destroyed by boiling. These roots should be prepared as infusions.
If you are preparing a recipe that involves both the leaves and the roots of a plant, such as a ginger mint tea, decoct the roots first, then add the leaves after you’ve removed the decoction from the heat and set it aside to infuse. Try using herbs that are in season, or abundant in your area, and experiment with different recipes. You’ll quickly discover a few new favorites!