This month I thought it would be fun and useful to review some herbal terminology concerning medicinal herbal teas.
In my opinion, one of the beauties of medicinal herbal teas is that the remedy-making remains in the hands of the patient, allowing for a direct connection with the plant and its medicinal properties, and helping patients take responsibility and gain knowledge about the healing process of their bodies. And though in today’s fast-paced, pill-popping world, herbal teas may be seen as outdated and inconvenient, they do have their advantages. For instance, they are usually more affordable, and they can also be used within certain therapeutic strategies – for example, encouraging someone who doesn’t drink enough water, to drink more. And as many British people know (isn’t a “cuppa” after all a national drink?), the making of a tea can have therapeutic benefits in its own right: it is nurturing, provides a moment to stop or connect, and has a ritualistic aspect to it that is soothing.
In discussions on herbal teas, you may have come across and been confused by the various terms used to describe herbal teas such as tisane (from the French), herbal infusion, hot infusion, cold infusion, decoction or even concentrated decoction. At the end of the day, all of these are just different ways of talking about herbal teas, but the difference concerning infusions and decoctions is all about the method of making them.
Both infusions and decoctions are made with plant material and water, and allow for the extraction of the active constituents of medicinal plants. They can both be made with fresh or dried herb material. Other than the availability of fresh plants, for medicinal purposes sometimes it is best to use one form or the other, however for the purposes of this article and general knowledge, that is too much information! My only recommendation is to use good quality organic loose herb material from reliable sources that has been properly stocked. Generally, commercial herbal teas in bags are not always of the highest quality, and the bags not often sustainable. Having loose tea allows you to use your own internal sense and creativity to come up with mixes you may need or want to try.
So on that note, what is the difference between infusions and decoctions? And hot or cold infusions? Or “normal” or concentrated decoctions?
An infusion is made by “infusing” (or steeping) certain types of plant “material” in water, which can either be just off the boil (hot infusion) or cold. Note that a cold infusion is not a hot infusion that has been allowed to cool. Cold infusions start in cold water. Using hot or cold has certain therapeutic advantages depending on the plant though sometimes they are made one way or another for seasonality, taste or as a matter of tradition. For instance, marshmallow root and hibiscus (in North African countries) have traditionally been made using cold infusions. In the case of marshmallow root, this is thought to be because it extracts the mucilaginous compounds (that is the viscous compounds that make it such a soothing herb for sore throats or difficult digestive systems) much better than in a hot infusion. (In a previous blog, I included a recipe for Hibiscus Tea Kefir using a traditional cold infusion of hibiscus as the base. Click here to see this delicious and healthy recipe.) When making a cold infusion it is important to ensure that you use clean materials and refrigerate the infusion to avoid contamination.
Infusions (whether hot or cold) are usually used for the aerial or lighter plant material, in other words, leaves, small (non-woody) stems and flowers. These are plant material which compounds can be extracted rapidly because of their “lighter” structure. Since infusions are primarily used to draw out vitamins, enzymes, and aromatic volatile oils they cannot be subjected to the same level of heat and boiling time required for decoctions, or they risk losing some of these compounds – particularly the volatile ones. In certain cases, roots/rhizomes with strong volatile aromatic compounds such as ginger can also be infused rather than decocted in order to maintain the aromatics.
Though generally medicinal infusion times are much longer than a simple tea or herbal infusion, at the end of the day it comes down to taste because longer infusion times mean more concentrated flavours – something that isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to herbal medicines! A medicinal infusion is generally left to infuse at least 10-15 minutes and it is often recommended to infuse for 30 minutes or more. For cold infusions, you may need to infuse for 24-48 hours! The infusion times will impact on the chemical compounds extracted. Longer infusion times can have more nutritional benefits as well as draw out more of the compounds. REMEMBER always to cover the infusion while it is steeping so as not to lose the volatile compounds.
Decoctions differ from infusions mainly in the way they are prepared and in the type of plant material used. Decoctions are primarily used to extract active constituents, mineral salts and bitter principles from “harder” plant material such as roots, bark, seeds, rhizomes and woods, or where constituents remain stable in heat (such as tannins).
The difference in the preparation is that unlike in infusions, decoctions require you to bring to a boil and then simmer the plant material for a minimum of 10-15 minutes – and more often 20-30 minutes or more. It can then be strained and either added to an infusion, diluted or drunk straight.
A concentrated or strong decoction is, as the words imply, a more concentrated decoction! This can be made in different ways: for instance by simmering the mixture for a longer period until it is reduced. Alternatively, after simmering for about 30 minutes, the plant material continues to steep for some additional time – at least another 30 minutes to a few hours off the boil like an infusion. The tea is then simmered down again until reduced. Concentrated decoctions usually need to be diluted back to be used or used in other ways such as a syrup. They can keep for up to a week in the refrigerator or even longer if made into syrups, kept in sterilised jars, etc. Like infusions, decoctions should also always be covered while boiling and steeping.
There are also more complex ways of using decoctions and concentrated decoctions in the herbal traditions but that information may be left for another article!
Combining Decoctions and Infusions
For practical reasons, hard and soft plant material can be combined, and so too can the decoction and infusion methods. In fact, in one of the oldest still-running “Herboristerie” in France, the famous Pere Blaise in Marseille, they usually advise patients to simmer the herbal preparation for 5 minutes and then steep the whole mixture for 20-30 minutes off the boil.
Alternatively, the harder material can be decocted separately first as per the decoction method described above, strained (or not!) and then added to the infusion mix, for a longer infusion time (usually 30 minutes).
I have used both methods with patients – much of it depends on time and practicalities.
Preparing the herbs
Dried herbs should be cut up into fine pieces for use in medicinal teas – cutting the plant up allows for more surface area out of which to extract the constituents. Fresh herbs should be chopped or lightly bruised to help extraction. Do not soak the fresh plants or clean them with any products. If they are dirty they should be quickly rinsed or brushed (or both). Always use organic or wildcrafted sources (from clean environments), be clear about the source of the herbs (and its species), and store the herbs in a dry environment out of direct sunlight to avoid over-drying, mould or bugs.
In some herbal traditions it would be typical to prepare a day’s supply (2-4 cups) in the morning in one go. The typical dose for infusions would be about 1-2 tablespoons of plant material for 500ml of water (or more) – usually this is valid for dried herbs. Fresh herbs contain more water so you might need to adjust the dose. Consider using about 2-4 tablespoons for the same amount of water, or adjust to taste, depending also on the type of plant material (stem or flower petals for instance). If you want to make a cup at a time, adjust the amount accordingly but always add a little more water than the amount you want to drink to account for evaporation.
Preparing a large batch in advance can be a benefit for those people on the go or working during the day, but in some cases may not be appropriate therapeutically. For instance, in the case of an infusion for a chest infection or cold, it would be better to prepare the infusion just before drinking it, allowing not only for the warmth but also for less evaporation time for volatile constituents.
For decoctions, usually half the amount of plant material used for an infusion would be a good start. Again this can be adjusted for taste and type of material considering the weight and size of the plant material.
Most herbal infusions and decoctions will last up to a week in the refrigerator. I usually tend to keep infusions for only 2-3 days and decoctions for up to a week maximum. You can also freeze infusions and decoctions in ice cube trays or make ice lollies with them for children. You can add a bit of apple juice for sweetness if necessary.
Some of my favourite herbal tea combinations (the yummy ones)!
- Cinnamon and rose infusion with honey. This is a really soothing infusion based on North African and Middle Eastern infusions and can be made hot or cold. It makes a nice digestive or a heart-warming mix for a chillier day. Decoct the pieces of cinnamon bark for 5 minutes first, do not strain and add the boiling water and cinnamon to the rose petals or buds. Infuse to taste then add a small amount of honey. In the summer months, it can be made as a cold infusion – infusea the cinnamon and rose petals together for 24 hours at least. You can also decoct the cinnamon first for 5 minutes, let the liquid cool then add to the roses and infuse for 12-24 hours in the refrigerator.
- Ginger with dried (or fresh) lemon or orange rind: grate the ginger or grate half and extract the rest of the ginger in a juicer. I often use a garlic crusher for this. Add boiling water to the ginger and rind pieces, and allow to infuse 10-15 minutes or longer with a lid. Alternatively, if you don’t want the tea to cool, keep the mixture on very low heat for 5-10 minutes without simmering or boiling. If you are adventurous and have a cold, try adding some freshly cut garlic and some cayenne pepper! A little honey will help the medicine go down!
- Valerian hot cocoa: for those of you who can’t really handle the strong taste of valerian but find its sedative actions effective, decoct some valerian root in non-dairy milk (I like oat for this). Just before you take it off the boil, add 1 teaspoon or two of good quality cocoa powder, stir and let it simmer a minute or two, strain and drink. If you need to add something sweet, a little honey can be added. There is a tradition of certain herbs being decocted in milk – this was used to help extract both oil and water-soluble constituents in those herbs since the milk acted as an emulsifier.
Now that you know the basics, enjoy creating your own combinations!