Photo by Claire Bohman.
Herbal vinegars are a great way to bridge that oh-so-fine-line between food and medicine. They can also be a nice way to introduce herbs to the uninitiated and those with sensitive palates. Once made, they are quick and easy to use, good for those busy people in your life who can’t take the time to make some tea. Last, but certainly not least, they are delicious.
Herbal vinegars can be sprinkled over your food or used as a base for making your own salad dressing. Some herbs actually work better as tea or vinegar than tincture because they need either the long cooking and/or the acidity of the vinegar to pull out their minerals and make them more bio-available.
The other good news is that making an herbal vinegar is quite simple. Here’s how you do it:
- Start with a clean, glass jar with a plastic lid. If you don’t have a plastic lid, cut a square out of plastic bag or use some plastic wrap to cover the jar before putting on the metal lid. Vinegar will eat through metal over time. If that happens you have corroded metal in your vinegar; besides not tasting very good it is not good for you!
- Choose an organic vinegar that is on the light side; such as apple cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar. A vinegar such as balsamic will mask the flavor of the herbs you infuse in it.
- Fill your jar with herbs, fresh or dry, and gently pack them in if they are fluffy.
- Pour in the vinegar covering the herbs ½ to 1” above the line of the herbs. If the herbs are not staying under the surface of the vinegar you can put some rocks (clean and non-porous) in the jar to hold the herbs down. The herbs will oxidize, turn black and eventually mold if they are exposed to air.
- Keep your herbal vinegar in a cool, dark place – like a cabinet – for 2-4 weeks.
- Strain out the plant matter and you have a vinegar.
If the vinegar is cloudy you have probably used an herb that contains starches, which is fine, just keep it in the refrigerator since the starches will cause it to spoil more quickly. Most herbal vinegars, if stored properly, can last up to a year and are a great way to take your herbs.
You can get creative and play with the colors as well. I learned from Karyn Sanders to put fresh chive blossoms in rice wine vinegar and it will turn a lovely shade of lavender. Also consider the color in such plants as lavender and red basil.
Speaking of basil, when it really takes off in your garden, you can have more than you know what to do with. Consider making an herbal vinegar. It is a great way to keep large quantities of fresh herb from going bad.
So, as Julia Child would say “Bon Appetit!”
chai basics: cinnamon, clove, cardamom
Chai is such a wonderful cold weather tea that I wanted to share with you how I make it. Chai, or masala chai, means ‘mixed spice tea’ and originates in India.
Usually chai is made with a base of black tea, which you are welcome to do. However, I encourage you to make a caffeine-free version without the black tea; save your body the stress. Instead of black tea, I include burdock or dandelion root and add a touch of peppermint at the very end of the steeping process.
So, gather up these basics. If you truly don’t like any of these herbs, by all means, leave them out. This is your chai!
cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, clove, ginger, black pepper
burdock or dandelion root (I like to put one or both of these in to give the chai a nice earthy base note, plus it is good for your liver.)
peppermint, or chocolate mint, at the very end
Some other spices I put in, depending upon my mood;
fennel, orange peel, carob, chicory
Personally I like to go heavy on the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and black pepper and light on the clove and star anise.
Select the herbs you want to use, leaving out the peppermint for now. I like to simmer my teas in a glass pot, avoiding any metallic taste or interaction. Put a good three to four handfuls of your herb mix in the pot and fill with water. Cover and simmer for at least one hour.
Taste it and see where the flavor is; you’ll want it to be strong. I generally simmer my chai for at least two hours, plus it makes your home smell amazing!
Once your chai has reached the desired strength, turn off the heat, add in a couple of tablespoons of peppermint and cover it again. Let the peppermint sit for about ten minutes then take out the peppermint. The peppermint really does take over quickly, so be careful on this step.
Now the base of your chai is done.
At this point you can either make up your chai by the cup or use a smaller pot. Put chai in your favorite mug and add milk and honey to taste. I usually like about two-thirds chai to one-third milk; almond or hazelnut milks are my favorites with chai. You can use any kind of milk; cow, goat, soy, oat, nut, etc.
If you aren’t drinking your whole pot of chai in the first day, strain out the herbs and store the chai base in your frig. You can even freeze some of it. Those chai herbs you strained out can be used again for a total of two to three times; store them covered in the frig since they are now wet.
Now take that aromatic steaming mug, sit back, look out the window and enjoy your delicious chai.
gorgeous ceramics by Kevan Miller
To listen to a related radio broadcast, go to http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/66958 . This program aired live on January 20, 2011 and will be archived for two weeks.
If you don’t already make herbal teas for yourself, now is a good time to start. Since we are supposed to slowing down during winter, taking the time to make some tea, that is not only warming but good medicine, is a great way to get in the mood of winter. Then when the different seasons roll around, you have your tea making skills down and all you need to do is make seasonal adjustments for the herbs you are using.
Making herbal tea is making medicine. You’ll hear about herbal infusions and herbal decoctions, more about that later. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just refer to all of them as tea. I’m not talking about throwing an old chamomile tea bag in some hot water for five minutes. This time-honored method makes a lovely beverage, but it is not medicine. I’m talking about using good quality, loose, dried herbs and giving them hours to steep in water.
Some hints about selecting and storing your herbs:
Once herbs are dried they lose their stability after one to two years – this varies from plant to plant. When buying loose, dried herbs check for freshness. They should have some color to them, some smell. Old dried out herbs have no life. Even if you don’t know what the plant is supposed to look or smell like, you can get a sense of whether the herb has some vitality to it. Think about selecting produce.
If you are going to use your herbs in a timely manner – within a couple months – store them in a covered glass jar in your cupboard. If you buy a large quantity and/or do not use them often, put them in a plastic freezer bag and store in your freezer. Storing herbs in your freezer will help them to maintain their freshness.
orange peel, rosehips and ginger
So, let’s get started:
you will need a clean, empty quart-sized glass jar with a lid (mason jar or large mayo jar; a wide-mouth jar is easiest to work with)
put 1 to 2 handfuls of dry herb in the jar (or about two to three inches deep, this will vary depending upon the fluffiness of the herb)
heat water on stove to hot, just before a boil
pour water into jar filling it, covering the dry herb, cover with the lid to the jar (do not tighten it however, or it will be difficult to unscrew once it cools)
allow to steep (sit covered) for a minimum of 8 hours to overnight
once the tea has steeped, strain out plant matter (if you are able, it is nice to put the plant matter, called the mark, in your garden under a tree or plant, so that it can return to the earth; when I didn’t have a yard and lived in the city, I liked to take the mark out and put it under one of the city trees surrounded by concrete.)
drink and enjoy your tea; drink at room temperature or gently warm on the stove (do not boil and do not microwave)
store tea in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days; if you haven’t finished it by this time pour it out, it will start to grow things
if you want to make a smaller amount of tea, use about one table spoon dry herb to 8 ounces of water and follow the previous steps.
sometimes the healing is in the color as well
If you are making a tea combining several herbs, it is easiest to mix the dry herbs together in a large bowl and store them already mixed. Then you can simply grab a handful of the mix and make your tea.
If you like to make your own blend each time, still follow the above guidelines for herb to water proportions. In other words, if you are combining three herbs into one tea, do not put two handfuls of each herb in the jar. Also, it is easier to brew them together, rather than having three separate jars going if you are planning to drink them together anyway.
Whether you are making teas for health for pleasure or both, enjoy them. Take time to enjoy the ritual of making the tea, appreciate the colors, aromas and tastes.
Here are some herbs you might want to try. Making tea blends is a lot like cooking, from a flavor standpoint. And sometimes, you aren’t as concerned about the flavor and just want to get the medicinal properties into your body. I didn’t include any herbs below that most people might consider ‘bad’ tasting, just to ease you in to the whole tea thing.
mullein leaves - wonderful respiratory tonic, especially to the lungs (This one I like to strain through a cloth or coffee filter so the little hairs on the leaves don’t irritate your throat.)
chamomile flowers – calming, helps with anxiety, especially when felt in stomach area, good digestive aid as well
burdock root - good liver and digestive support
hawthorne berries- wonderful heart tonic, high in bioflavinoids and help lower cholesterol
elder berries – strongly anti-viral specific to the respiratory system, good medicine for the cold and flu season
So, about infusions and decoctions. An infusion is what is described above in your tea making process. Infusions are great for leaves and flowers. When making tea from denser plant matter such as roots and berries, herbalists often make a decoction. For a decoction you would first lightly simmer the herbs, covered, for 20 minutes to several hours. Then you let it steep as described above in a covered jar. That being said, sometimes you are mixing leaves and roots, for instance. In that case you can separate them and add the decocted roots into you infusing leaves, or you can keep is simple and just infuse the whole blend.
Herbal teas are a lovely way to introduce people, including yourself, to herbal medicine. You can work with different blends, like you blend flavors when you cook. Sometimes, I like to just make a tea of one herb to really enjoy the taste and energy of that one plant and its medicine. Here is enough information to get you started. Heat up some water and get your jar out, get your hands in some herbs and before you know it, you’ll be sitting with a nice warm cup of medicine watching the winter sunset.