Monday, December 27, 2010

Making Herbal Tinctures

** originally posted July, 2008

After my Stinging Nettle for Allergies entry, I've had a few friends ask me to share with them how I make herbal tinctures. I think it's about time I get around to doing that now.

First you have to collect the herbs you want to make into tinctures. Collect the herbs at their peak time for maximum benefit. Flowers are best picked early in the morning just as they open into their bloom. When collecting leaves, usually earlier in the season they leaves are more tender but my personal experience has been that tinctures don't care if the leaves are tough or tender. You never want leaves or flowers that have been eaten by bugs or damaged by weather, disease or something else. Try to get the best herbs you can, then dry them. I dry larger things like stinging nettle or mint hanging in the attic where it's warm and dry. For smaller things like flowers, I use a food dehydrator. You do not want to dry your herbs in the sunlight because the thought is that just like the sun fades the herbs it will destroy some of it's beneficial properties. The key is to dry them in a place that is dark, dry, and with good airflow so that the herbs will dry well and not become moldy.

Dried Stinging Nettle
Dried nettle leaves going into clean glass jars

Once the herbs are dry they can be crunched up and stored in a jar. I've found that flowers like red clover can be put through a coffee grinder and then stored in a jar so they don't take up so much room, which means that you can get more of the red clover in a single jar. The coffee grinder is also good for chopping up tougher things like dandelion roots. The herbs should then be stored in a cool dark place, like a cupboard that is not near your range or above your toaster oven.

red clover examples
Red Clover - Crushed vs Whole

When you have decided that you want to make a tincture of one of your dried herbs, take a jar full of your herbs and add your tincture liquid. The first year we used vegetable glycerine and water in a 60% to 40% ratio. The glycerine is very sweet and so after a while my husband asked that we use something else, so I used vodka. The vodka is harsh at first but it only lasts a few seconds before the harshness is completely gone. I'm going to make my next batch with apple cider vinegar and see how that goes. All this is to say that you can use any of these items as your carrier. The vodka can be either straight or half vodka and half water but you want to use 100 proof vodka if at all possible. Apple cider vinegar can be used straight or half and half as well. Whatever you choose to use, be sure that you fill your jar with the liquid so that all of your herbs are covered with the liquid.

Once your herbs are covered with your choice of liquid, put the lid on the jar and give it a good shake. You want to ensure that all the herbs inside the jar get saturated with the liquid. You will let the jar sit for two to four weeks, giving it a good shake once a day or so. There is a debate as to whether or not one should set their tincture in a warm sunny window or in a cool dark cupboard. The old way has always been to make your tincture as you would make sun tea, to let it steep in a warm sunny window. However the new way seems to be to keep your herbs out of the sunlight at this stage as well and let the tincture brew in a cool dark place. I've done both and both seem to work.
Brewing Tincture

You can see the brewing liquid is now a dark green color
So far, you've not done a whole lot all at once. You've collected your herbs, dried them, stored them in a glass jar and now you've added some liquid to them and let them sit for a few weeks. The next step is the final step in your preparation. You will need to have the containers you want to keep your tincture in prepared and ready to go, make sure they are clean and that you have enough of them. You will need a bowl or a large measuring cup, a strainer, cheese cloth and something to help you pull the herbs out of the jar (I use a chopstick). You will also need to have labels to put on the containers that will hold your finished product.

prepared to make tincture
Prepared to make the tincture

Set the strainer on top of your bowl or large measuring cup and line your strainer with the cheesecloth. The cheesecloth will be your actual strainer, the strainer is just to help you hold the material out of the bowl/cup while you work with it. You will then dump the contents of the jar into the cheesecloth.

Herbs in Cheesecloth
Herbs in cheesecloth

Use the chopstick to help pull the herbs out of the jar and then fold the four corners of the cheesecloth up into your hand and give the ends a twist.

begin to press the herbs
Pressing the herbs

What you will have is a ball of herbs inside the cheesecloth and as you twist the ends it will tighten up on the herbs and press out the liquid. Continue to press the ball-o-herbs until you cannot press out any more liquid.

My last batches of nettle tincture yielded two and a half cups of tincture each. I divided up the tincture into a few dropper bottles and stored the rest in old wine bottles. As the dropper bottles become empty I will refill them with the tincture from the wine bottles. A very important step is to label your tinctures - ALWAYS label your herbs and tinctures.

Labeled Tinctures
Labeled Tinctures
I have read that the tinctures will keep for 3-6 months in a cool dark place and for 9 - 12 months in the refrigerator. I have read that the dosage is anywhere from one dropperfull once a day to several dropperfulls several times a day. For example, during allergy season one might require more of the nettle tincture than they would in the off season. I am experimenting right now with two nettle tinctures to determine a good dosage for myself and my family. In the picture you see two sets of tinctures, one brewed in the sun and one in the dark. This is another experiment we're trying right now, too. We're taking one tincture for a week and then the next week we will take the other to see if any of us notice a difference between the two. I'll let you know how that goes later on.

Some important notes

Always use dry herbs to make your tinctures. The dried herbs are dehydrated, the water is removed from the herb itself. When you add your choice of liquid to the herb, the herb will reconstitute with the carrier liquid you add. This way you will be able to pull the good stuff that is in the herbs into the tincture liquid. If you use fresh herbs you run a high risk of brewing a tincture that is full of bacteria and will make you sick.

It takes a lot of dried herbs to fill a jar. When making a tincture, try to use a jar that will be fairly full when you add all the herbs you intend to use. If you have a small amount, use a smaller jar. Remember that if you make a lot, you will have a lot of tincture in the end. Only make a large batch of a tincture that you intend to use a lot of within a few months.

Write on the calendar the date that your tincture will be ready to press. This way you won't forget to finish your product. If you forget to shake your brewing tincture every day, that's fine. If you remember to give it a shake only a few times, that's okay. Some recommend shaking it up daily and some don't recommend it at all.

Dry and store your herbs away from direct sunlight and heat. Both sunlight and heat will lessen the effectiveness of your herbs and your finished product. As I mentioned earlier, some say to brew your tincture in sunlight and some say to brew it in the dark. The jury seems to be out on that one. Personally, I have preferred to brew mine in the dark. To me it makes sense that if you want to dry and store your herbs, and your finished product, in the dark that you would want to brew your tincture in the dark for the same reasons.

Always label your herbs and your tinctures! If you think that you will remember what you made and when you made it, you're probably going to be surprised in a few months. Be sure to label what is in the jar, when you put it in the jar and what the recommended dosage is. Be sure to put any other special notes you want to remember on the label, too.

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