Looking for creative, easy ways to use homegrown herbs, or maybe you've tried some fancy flavored oils or vinegars and wondered about making your own? Now you can make any meal a little special with your home infused oils, vinegars, alcohols and honey.
How to Make an Infused Oil
The best oils to use for infusions are pure plant oils such as olive, sunflower or almond oil. The oil I use most is olive, because it has a longer shelf life at room temperature. I wouldn't advise the use of canola, corn oil or “vegetable” oil. Most of these will be made from genetically modified crops, which I do not recommend for consumption. (Read more here.) Small batches are always best with infused oils, so they can be used quickly before they have a chance to go rancid.
This works best with olive oil, which is the most shelf stable liquid oil. To infuse an herbal oil, finely chop your clean, dry herb. (Wash only if really grimy, and dry well, as excess water can cause the infusion to spoil.) Place the finely chopped herb in a lidded glass jar, such as a mason jar or condiment jar. (This is a great use for old jars that can't be used for canning but have wide mouths and good fitting lids.) Label the jar – for instance, “Plantain in Olive Oil' and the date, as above. You'd be surprised how some chopped plants start to look similar to each other over time.
Place the jar in a sunny window or other warm location for 2-3 weeks. Stir daily, pushing all plant matter below the level of the oil. Wipe off any condensation from under the lid or above the oil.
Strain out the plant material and pour oil into a dark glass container. Label with contents and date. Store in a cool location out of direct light to maximize shelf life. ( I cover the jars with my husband's old mismatched socks – see “Homegrown Medicinals“.)
This is the method I was taught by my herbal mentor, and is the method I use. Some people have expressed concerns over botulism because of the low acidity in involved. Botulism toxins exposed to sunlight are inactivated within 1 to 3 hours. If you are still concerned about botulism, I recommend infusing over direct heat.
Direct Heat Infusion
Use dried herbs, and simmer them on low for 4-6 hours for medicinal use, as long as needed for flavoring (generally 30 minutes will do). Strain, cool, bottle and label with date and contents. Store in refrigerator. Most people who use this method will only infuse fresh herbs if they are going to be used the same day.
For food items such as garlic or citrus peels, you should only use the direct heat infusion method and make the oil in small batches. Store in the refrigerator, and use within two weeks to eliminate the risk of botulism. Cold will slow but not eliminate the development of botulism spores.
Garlic and citrus are both naturally anti-bacterial (as are many herbs and spices), so risks are minimal, but we always want to error on the side of caution. Plus, fresh oils taste better!
Infused oils make a great base for homemade salves, such as plantain salve, which I always keep on hand for bug bites, bee stings and other minor skin irritations. Flavored oils such as chive or basil can be used for cooking and make lovely gifts.
How to Infuse Herbs in Water
Water based infusions are very similar to making tea, except that an infusion will steep longer. You can use a muslin tea bag or stainless steel tea ball to hold your herbs, but I generally prefer to leave my herbs loose and then strain after brewing.
To make an infusion, place one tablespoon of dried herbs or three tablespoons of fresh herbs into a ceramic teapot, mug or mason jar for each cup of tea you intend to brew. Cover with boiling water. Place on the lid (or cover your cup with a saucer) and let steep for 10-15 minutes or overnight. Strain and drink. I regularly make infusions of oatstraw and nettle for general health and wellness. Mint is great for soothing sore tummies. You can read about herbs and spices that boost you immune system here.
How to Infuse Herbs in Vinegar or Alcohol
When you infuse herbs in alcohol or vinegar, it is commonly referred to as a tincture when used medicinally, but you can make some very tasty flavored vinegars and drink mixers, too.
To make a basic alcohol or vinegar tincture: (from Holistic Herbal)
- Place 4 ounces by weight of dried chopped or ground herbs (twice as much for fresh) into a glass jar with lid that can be tightly closed.
- Pour 1 pint of 30% (60 proof) vodka on the herbs, close the container tightly. I watch for sales on vodka, and prefer those in glass jars over plastic, because I figure if the alcohol can leak compounds out of the herbs, it may attack the plastic, too. Label with contents and date.
- Keep the container in a warm place for two to six weeks and shake it well twice every day. This one shouldn't go in direct sun, but on the kitchen counter is fine.
- Strain out the plant material – it makes great compost. Don't be afraid to squeeze it dry. You can let it settle before bottling or strain through a coffee filter if a clearer product is desired.
- Pour the tincture into a dark bottle (or store out of direct light). Don't forget to label it with the contents and date. Pretty bottles of food stuffs look lovely on display, but light speeds the breakdown of many compounds in the food/medicine. When you're trying to break down plant material to transfer its compounds into oil, this makes sense, but not for long term storage.
Susun Weed prefers fresh herbs, some sites recommend only dry herbs. Some recommend infusing in warmth and light, others recommend cool and dark. I think it's a matter of working with what you have. I do oils in the sun, tinctures out of direct light, and I typically use fresh herbs for both. With water, I'll often use dry herbs, like making tea.
Susun's tincture making method recommends filling the jar with fresh herbs, filling it with 100 proof vodka making sure all the herbs are well covered, sealing, labeling and letting it stand for six weeks before straining. Sometimes she doesn't even strain, just dips some out of the bottle and leaves the plant material in. She says she's kept some this way for years with no loss of potency. This is the method I regularly use, because it's quick and easy.
My preferred choice for vinegars that I plan to eat, especially in a product like this, is a good quality white wine, champagne or apple cider vinegar. Vinegars can be done in about two weeks, and are best stored in a bottle with a cork or other non-metallic lid. I saved my vinegar bottle and plan to put the vinegar back in once it's done infusing. 🙂
Dandelion Aperitif from Healing Wise
- 2-3 cups fresh dandelion blossoms
- 2/3 cup sugar
- rind of half a lemon
- 1 quart vodka
Do not wash flowers. Cut off green. mix all ingredients together into jar; cap. Shake daily. Wait two weeks, then strain and enjoy with ice and lemon, or hot with water and honey, or by itself before or after meals. This recipe can be made with any edible flower or herb.
To make the cranberry-lime vodka, I fill the bottle with fresh cranberries and a slice lime and covered it in vodka, then let it steep. (Photo at top of post.) You can add sugar, too, if you like, or just use strips of zest instead of lime slices. Repackage in a fancy bottle with a bow and you have a nice gift. (These were headed for my own hooch cabinet. 😉 Yes, I know the cranberries and limes are not generally considered herbs, but they do make for a pretty photo and a tasty drink.
How to Infuse Herbs in Honey
You can also infuse herbs in honey. (I made some vanilla honey for Christmas gifts last year – so yummy!) The flavor takes a little longer to permeate the honey, so I'd recommend a minimum of a month on this one, although if you are using strongly flavored herbs, two weeks may be enough. For vanilla honey, add one or two chopped vanilla beans per cup jar, depending on the size of the bean and whether they've been previously used. (I used beans that had previously been used to make ice cream and let them steep for three months.) Rose petals, mint, anise, chamomile and lavender are other popular choices for flavoring honey. 1 to 2 tablespoons of herbs per cup of honey should be plenty. Mild honeys work best for flavoring.