Herbal infusions and decoctions are some of the easiest, most accessible, and most economical ways to enjoy and reap the benefits of nutritive and medicinal herbs. These water-based herbal extractions also happen to be incredibly versatile and are a not-to-be-missed step in any beginning herbalists’ journey.
Here you’ll learn the difference between infusions and decoctions, how to know which method to use and why, and how to make these simple herbal preparations.
Fancy words aside, we’re really just making some herbal tea… the herbalists’ way.
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Types of Water-Based Herbal Extractions
How to Know Which Method to Use
Equipment & Ingredients Needed
Using More Than One Method
Hot Tips & FAQs
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One of my favorite things about working with medicinal herbs is that there are so many ways to prepare them! Whether it’s personal preference, availability of materials and resources, or any number of other factors, there’s an herbal preparation for everybody.
It makes me think about when someone says they don’t like broccoli. To that, I say, “there are 100 ways to prepare broccoli and you just haven’t found the one you like yet!”
Water-based herbal extractions are simply an extraction of flavor, nutrients, and beneficial phytochemicals from plant materials such as leaves, flowers, bark, seeds, and fruit using water.
If you’re a tea, herbal tea, or coffee drinker, you probably enjoy water-based herbal extractions every day! These everyday beloved beverages are nothing more than an infusion of water and plant materials.
However, when preparing your own water-based herbal extractions, whether you’re making tea, coffee, or diving into making your own herbal body lotions, there are a few things to know so that you get the most benefit out of the herbs you’re using.
Types of Water-Based Herbal Extractions
There are many liquids that you can use to extract the beneficial properties of therapeutic plants. You could use alcohol (to make medicinal tinctures, herbal cordials, or infused liquors and wines), honey, glycerin (to make kid-friendly glycerites), vinegar (e.g. fire cider), or any number of other liquids.
When it comes to water-based herbal extractions, there are two basic types:
How to Know Which Type of Herbal Water Extraction to Use
Knowing which method to use can seem a little overwhelming at first, but it’s really quite simple. We’ll get into the details of that below.
First, it’s important to know that the water-based herbal extraction method you use, infusion or decoction, can depend on a few different factors:
- Types of herbs and/or spices you’re using (ie. leaves, flowers, fruits, bark, etc…)
- Intended useage (ie. are you just looking for something delicious to sip on or are you looking for something with specific nutritional and/or medicinal benefit?)
- Availability of resources (ie. do you have the ability to boil water?)
Preparing to Make an Herbal Extraction
As mentioned, infusions and decoctions are two of the easiest, beginner-friendly herbal preparations to make. Accordingly, the equipment and ingredient requirements are incredibly simple.
Here are some helpful suggestions for the equipment you may need or want to use. You don’t need all of this equipment, however, this will give you an idea of what’s involved in infusing or decocting herbs. Remember, you’re basically making tea.
Here are some options:
- Quart-Sized Pot with Lid (You’ll need this when decocting herbs, as they’ll need to simmer on the stove.)
- Tea Kettle (This is my all-time favorite electric tea kettle that allows you to set the water temperature.)
- Tea Infusers (These are helpful for loose leaf teas. Look for infusers that allow space for the herbs to expand as they soak up water.)
- French Press (This is another easy option for infusing herbs that comes with it’s own built-in lid to help keep the steam and volatile oils in.)
- Reuseable Tea Bags or Unbleached Disposable Tea Filter Bags
- Fine-Mesh Strainers (I consider these a must-have for practicing herbalism at home. This set of 3 gets used almost daily in my household.)
- Unbleached Cheesecloth or Organic Cotton Muslin (If straining herbs using a fine-mesh strainer, it’s helpful to line the strainer with several layers of cheesecloth or muslin to help catch as much plant matter as possible. This will lengthen the shelf-life of your infusion.)
- Quart-Sized Glass Jars (Canning jars are perfect! You could also re-use a glass jar that’s been cleaned and sanitized.)
- Your Choice of Herbs (Always opt for organic, fair-trade, and/or ethically-harvested when possible. Mountain Rose Herbs is a great online source of high-quality herbs and spices.)
Water-Based Herbal Infusions
Infusions can be broken down into few categories:
- Cold infusions
- Hot infusions
- Solar infusions
The main difference between herbal infusions and herbal decoctions is that in infusing plant materials, you’ll never boil (or simmer) the herbs. Decoctions require simmering.
For herbal infusions, you’ll use water that is either room temperature, cold, hot (brought to just a boil), or even gently heated by the power of the sun.
Cold infusions are made when you steep herbal tea in cold or room temperature water. Instead of pouring hot water over your herbs, you simply soak the herbs in cool water. This method takes a lot longer than the others, but can sometimes result in a better-tasting tea.
When to Use: Use a cold infusion with softer plant materials like non-waxy leaves, flowers, and soft fruits.
Time to Infuse: Typically 8 to 12 hours (or overnight) depending on your herbs of choice and how strong you’d like the extraction to be. Overnight infusions are most common when using the cold infusion method.
How to Make a Cold Infusion:
- Add about 4 tablespoons of your choice of herbs (or herbal tea blend) to a quart-sized glass jar. (You could also add your herbs to a resueable tea bag or make a small muslin pouch and eliminate the need to strain after infusing.)
- Fill jar to the top with cold water and place a lid on the jar.
- Allow to infuse at room temperature overnight.
- Then strain (or remove tea bag or muslin pouch) and enjoy. Be sure to store in the refrigerator to prevent fermentation or the growth of harmful bacterial. Drink right away or within 5-7 days.
Hot infusions involve pouring water that’s been brought to just a boil over herbs and allowing it to steep for several minutes. This is how most teas are made.
When to Use: Use a hot infusion with softer plant materials like leaves and flowers. You can also use a hot infusion with harder, denser plant material like roots, bark, and fruits, although it helps to process these into very small pieces (or powder them) for the best infusion.
Time to Infuse: Typically 8-30 minutes depending on how strong you’d like the extraction to be.
How to Make a Hot Infusion:
You most typically see the hot infusion method used for single servings such as you would when making yourself a cup of herbal tea. However, you can also make these in larger quart-sized batches as well.
Steep time can vary according to desired strength. However, know that herbal teas are typically steeped longer than true teas (green, black, white, and oolong).
- Add 2-3 teaspoons of herbs to a tea strainer or reusable tea bag and set in your favorite mug.
- Pour 8-10 ounces of hot water (just below a boil) over the herbs and cover. (I use a small plate.)
- Allow to steep for 8-10 minutes (or up to 30 minutes).
- Remove herbs and enjoy!
✺ HERBALIST’S TIP ✺
Always be sure to cover your herbal tea while it steeps or decocts. Doing so will help prevent the beneficial volatile oils from escaping with the steam. These volatile oils are often the compounds that give herbs many of their health benefits. And while not all herbs are high in volatile oils, I feel it’s best to just always cover your tea.
Solar Infusions (Passive Hot Infusions aka “Sun Tea”)
Solar infusions are exactly what they sound like. It’s a slow and steady way of making herbal tea that reminds you to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life.
Instead of actively heating water on the stovetop, you simply combine water and herbs together in a large glass jar, put a loose lid on it, and then put the jar in a sunny spot in the window (or outside in the yard or on the porch) for a few hours.
You’ll see this method used often for herbal oil infusions as well.
I like to invert a brown paper bag over the jar just to keep off the direct sun and then let the power of the sun heat the water.
I added this type of infusion in here because it’s just so darn charming and romantic, isn’t it? While I don’t remember my family ever really making sun tea growing up, I had a best friend whose mother was always making a batch of sun tea using bags of Lipton Iced Tea.
The image of a large, now-vintage glass jar sitting in the sun with the tea bag strings hanging over the side brings back so many memories of summertime.
Today, solar infusions (or sun teas) come with some concern about their safety. For this reason, they’ve largely fallen out of fashion.
According to official food safety recommendations and regulations, water-based solar infusions harbor a risk of bacterial contamination because they don’t reach a hot enough temperature (and/or for a long enough time) to kill any harmful bacteria that may be on the plant materials (or on tea bags if using).
There are, however, a few simple steps to help eliminate any potential health risk associated with solar infusions.
- Ensure that your jar is clean and santized.
- Use boiled or distilled water.
- Allow to steep for no more than 4 hours.
- Refridgerate immediately.
- Consume quickly (within 2-3 days).
Nonetheless, the health risk is very small but present. If concerned, just play it safe and opt for either a cold or active hot infusion.
When to Use: Use a solar infusionas you would a hot infusion with softer plant materials like leaves and flowers. You can also use a solar infusion with harder, denser plant material like roots, bark, and fruits, although it helps to process these into very small pieces (or powder them) for the best infusion.
Time to Infuse: Allow to infuse for about 4 hours.
How to Make a Solar Infusion:
- Add 1-2 cups of fresh chopped herbs (and fruit, if using) or ~1/2-3/4 cup dried herbs to a quart-sized glass jar.
- Fill the jar with water.
- Set jar in a sunny warm spot. This could be in a window, in the backyard, or on a porch.
- Allow the herbs to infuse for 4 hours (or up to 8), then strain and enjoy immediately.
- Refridgerate leftovers and consume within 2-3 days. Discard if there are any strange changes in appearance, smell, or taste.
Luckily, there’s only one type of herbal decoction. As mentioned above, the main difference here is that you’ll actually boil or gently simmer the herbs.
The word decoction can seem like a scary, witchy word. It often pops up in television shows and movies about witches and warlocks or dark apocalyptic fantasies with mutated beasts and all sorts of strange things.
If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, my point is that it’s not a word that you hear often until you dive into herbalism and home-based herbal wellness.
Decoctions are nothing more than active hot infusions. Instead of just pouring hot water over the herbs, a decoction involves slowly simmering the herbs and water together.
This method is often used for harder, denser plant materials like roots, bark, seeds, and dried fruits simply because these materials require more heat (and even agitation from the boiling) to help break the cell walls to release the beneficial phytochemicals.
When to Use: Use a decoction with harder, denser plant material like roots, bark, seeds, and dried fruits.
Time to Infuse: Typically 20-60 minutes depending on your herbs of choice and how strong you’d like the extraction to be.
How to Make an Herbal Decoction:
- Add 3-4 tablespoons to a quart-sized pot, then fill with water.
- Over medium heat, slowly bring the mixture to a simmer.
- Cover and continue to gently simmer for 20-60 minutes. (You can turn the heat down to low to enure that the decoction doesn’t boil over.)
- Then remove from heat and allow to cool until it’s easier to handle (about 1 hour).
- Use a fine mesh strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth and a funnel to strain the liquid into a clean quart-sized glass jar. Some of the liquid will have evaporated and you can replace with more hot water if desired.
- Enjoy while warm or cool to room temperature, then place a lid on the jar and store in the refrigerator.
- Use within 5-7 days.
Using More Than One Extraction Method
You can also combine these water-based herbal extraction methods for specific therapeutic uses. For instance, if you’re wanting to create an herbal tea blend for a specific health concern and it contains both dense roots and soft and airy flowers, you could make a decoction of the roots first.
Then after you’ve removed the decoction from the heat, add in the flowers and allow to infuse. Otherwise, make a cold infusion of the flowers and then combine it with your strained decoction.
Hey fellow tea lover!
Herbal teas are one of the oldest & most accessible herbal remedies on the planet. And it’s incredibly empowering (& easy!) to blend your own. Check out this step-by-step guide:
How to Blend Your Own Nourishing Herbal Teas
Hot Tips & FAQs
Sweeten Your Infusion or Decoction, If Desired
If you’re making a water-based herbal extraction to drink, as you would an herbal tea, you could always sweeten it if desired.
Use organic cane sugar, honey, or maple syrup to taste. You could also try a sugar-free sweetener such as monk fruit.
Start with High-Quality Herbs
The very nature of making herbal extracts is to pull all the nutritive and medicinal properties of the plants out into a liquid that can then be used for any number of things. Unfortunately, we don’t have any control over leaving behind any harmful chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or fungicides that may be on the plant material.
When making your own herbal remedies at home, make sure that you’re starting with high-quality herbs that haven’t been treated with these chemicals. Otherwise, these health-harming chemicals will end up in your herbal medicines.
It’s also a good practice to be mindful of harvesting or foraging ethics as pertains to sustainability. A great company that can put all these concerns to rest is Mountain Rose Herbs.
Ways to Use Your Herbal Infusions & Decoctions
Yes, you’re basically making herbal tea but there are so many other ways to use and enjoy your herbal infusions and decoctions.
Here are some ideas:
- Simply, enjoy as a hot or iced herbal tea.
- Make herbal ice pops (or popsicles)!
- Use your water-based herbal extraction as the water component in homemade body lotions and creams.
- Add an equal part of sugar to make an herbal syrup. All herbal syrups start with a water-based herbal extraction (ie. herbal tea).
- Make an extra strong infusion or decoction to add to your bath. Let this Chamomile Rose Bath Tea inspire you!
Try These Water-Based Herbal Extractions!
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DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.