Editor's Note: There are many recipes to prepare herbs. The following is a selection of preparations from Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes by Susan Lynn Peterson.
It's possible to use herbs without making your own preparations. A wide variety of commercial preparations are available. Many of them, however, are quite expensive, especially if you are buying from overseas. Fortunately, many preparations can be made with dried herbs which are becoming increasingly available in health food stores, vitamin stores, and online.
Generally, when working with herbs, glass, ceramic, enamel, or pottery containers are best. If you don't have a glass or enamel pot you can use on the stove, stainless steel or copper is a decent second choice. Avoid aluminum, iron, or tin. Stir with wooden spoons. Store the resulting mixtures in glass or ceramic.
Your best bet is to have pots dedicated just to working with herbs. In fact, if you are going to work with herbs that are toxic, it's a good idea to dedicate some of your pots and utensils exclusively to topical and/or toxic preparations. Sure, you'll clean them well after each use, but there's always the chance of a bit of herb impregnated wax sticking to the inside. The last thing you want when you're making a nice stew is bits of arnica or menthol getting into it.
In addition to pots, you'll also need a gram scale—herb weights are typically given in grams—and various measuring spoons and cups. If you plan to crush herbs, you'll need a sturdy mortar and pestle. You don't want to use an electric food processor or grinder to crush herbs because you want to keep the heat due to friction to a minimum. That kind of heat changes herbs.
For decoctions and infusions, you'll need a strainer, maybe some cheesecloth or coffee filters. Again, exercise caution when using kitchen utensils. Don't use your kitchen strainer for toxic, topical herbs because it is very difficult to get completely clean. For safety's sake always label your bottles with the contents, the procedure, and the date. For example, your label might say something like "50% cinnamon, 50% fresh ginger root, decoction, current date."
Infusions are essentially teas. However, don't expect them to be the wimpy herbal brews you find in the tea section of your grocery store. Some may be light and pleasant tasting, but others can be quite strong and nasty.
Infusions are made by pouring hot water over herbs and letting them sit. Some herbs will require special instructions—more or less herbs, hotter or cooler water, longer or shorter infusion. Most, however, can be infused using these standard instructions. If there are special instructions, follow them. If it just says "infusion," use these instructions.
Note: If the tap water in your area is heavily laden with chemicals and chloride, you would do well to consider filtered or distilled water for your infusions.
1 ounce (30 g) dried herbs or 2 to 3 ounces (75 g) fresh herbs
2 cups water
If you are making an infusion with seeds like anise or fennel, bruise the seeds lightly. Put the herbs in a pot with a secure lid. Ideally the pot should be nonmetallic. A teapot works well. Boil the water in a separate kettle. Cool it a few seconds, just long enough to stop the boil. Pour the water over the herbs and let them infuse covered for ten to fifteen minutes. After they've steeped, pour the resulting infusion through a strainer or coffee filter. What you don't use immediately can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a day. Infusions should be made fresh daily.
Note: Many herbalists recommend that you not use the microwave to reheat herbal decoctions and infusions.
Some herbs need cold infusion as heat degrades their active ingredients. Here's how you make a cold infusion:
1 ounce (30 g) dried herbs or 2 to 3 ounces (75 g) fresh herbs
2 cups cool or cold water
Put the herbs in the bottom of a pot with a secure lid. Add the water. Put the lid on tight to prevent the essential oils from evaporating any more than necessary. Let the infusion sit for eight to twelve hours. Strain before using. Alternatively, if you are making a larger batch you can wrap the herbs in cheesecloth and suspend the cheesecloth sack in a pot of water.
If the cheesecloth floats, you can put something heavy and nonreactive (like a clean stone) in the bottom of the sack.
Like infusions, decoctions also pull the active ingredients of herbs into water. Decoctions, however, are made from herbs that need a bit more processing to extract the active ingredients. Roots, twigs, bark, tough stems and seeds, and sometimes berries are decocted rather than infused.
If you aren't given specific instructions about how to make a decoction, you can use these standard measurements and procedures:
1 ounce (30g) dried herbs or 2 ounces (60g) fresh herbs
3 cups of water
Put the herbs in a saucepan. Add the cold water. At this point, you can let the herbs sit and soak for a half hour if you wish. The tougher the herbs, the better the idea of a presoak is. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer uncovered at least thirty minutes. You can decoct herbs for an hour or more.
A good guideline is to remove the herbs from the heat when the liquid has been reduced by about one third to one half. Pour the liquid through a non- metal strainer or coffee filter. What you don't use immediately can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a day.
Decoctions, like infusions should be made fresh daily. Alternatively, they can be frozen in ice cube trays and then stored in cubes in labeled bags in the freezer. The herbs may lose some potency when stored this way, but decocting the herbs in advance does allow you to keep a decoction on hand for emergency use.
Syrups are one way to preserve infusions and decoctions. The sugar acts as a preservative in much the same way as it does in jams and jellies. Syrups are especially good for cough formulas as the honey or sugar syrup can be soothing for a raw throat.
Be aware, however, that some herbalists recommend that you not use sugar in your herbal preparations. They cite sugar's harmful effects and its nutritionally "empty" calories. At the very least, try to stay away from refined sugar.
From an infusion or decoction
one-part infusion or decoction
one-part honey or unrefined sugar
Heat the infusion or decoction. Add the honey or sugar.
From dried herbs
2 ounces herbs
1 quart water
2 ounces honey or glycerin (minimum—you may use more)
Add the water to the herbs. Heat to a boil, reduce to a slow boil, and cook until reduced by about half. Strain. Add honey or glycerin.
From powdered, dried herbs
8 ounces powdered herbs
24 ounces honey, maple syrup, or sugar syrup
Add the herbs directly to the syrup, heat gently for 30 minutes. For all three versions, allow the syrup to cool, and then pour it into a dark glass bottle with a cork or stopper. The stopper is important because syrups sometimes ferment. A bottle with a tight lid can explode. If you take exception to fermentation and or alcohol, make only enough syrup to use within a few weeks and store it in the refrigerator.
Infusions and decoctions are made with water. Tinctures are made with alcohol or a mixture of alcohol and water (such as can be found in vodka and other liquors). Until about fifty years ago, tinctures were common in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the list of medicinal preparations offered by commercial pharmacies. Today the U.S. Pharmacopoeia recognizes few or none.
Why would you want to use a tincture rather than an infusion or decoction? Some herbs have active ingredients that aren't soluble in water but are soluble in alcohol. Tinctures are also particularly good when you want to capitalize on the antimicrobial properties of an herb. Alcohol is a disinfectant, and it also enhances the antimicrobial properties of the chemicals dissolved in it. If you want to capitalize on this property of alcohol, use an alcohol water mix that is 60–90% alcohol.
Tinctures are formulated by weight. A 1:5 tincture is one-part herb to five parts liquid. For a rough calculation, you can say that one fluid ounce of liquid (water or alcohol) weighs one ounce. A 1:5 ratio would then be about one ounce (by weight) of herb to five fluid ounces of liquid.
For a standard tincture recipe with dried herbs, use a 1:5 ratio and 60% alcohol (though you can get by with 40–50%). For a tincture with fresh herbs, use a 1:2 ratio and 90–95% alcohol. The difference between the two is due to the greater amount of water in the fresh herbs. In the end, both kinds of tinctures end up containing roughly 60% alcohol.
If you're using fresh herbs, you can chop them coarsely or you can leave them whole. If you are using dried herbs, crush them with a mortar and pestle. Pour the vodka over the herbs in a large jar with a lid. Allow plenty of headroom. Let the jar stand at room temperature (or slightly warmer), out of direct sunlight. Once a day shake the jar. Tinctures should macerate for roughly two to six weeks. The length of time depends on how tough the herb is. Fresh blossoms are sometimes finished in a week or less. Tough roots can take six to eight weeks.
Tinctures get stronger the longer they macerate. You can tell a tincture is finished when the alcohol has taken on the color, smell, and (for nontoxic herbs) taste of the herb. Pour the liquid through cheese cloth or a jelly bag, or if you have one, you can use a wine press. Once the liquid has run through, squeeze the herbs to get the last of the liquid out.
Let tinctures sit for a few days until the sediment settles to the bottom. Then pull the clear liquid off and discard the sediment. Alternatively, a coffee filter can catch a lot of the sediment. Store tinctures in dark glass bottles. Some people like dropper bottles for tinctures because they allow easy measurement of the proper dosage.
The above is an excerpt from Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes: Effective Treatments for Common Sports Injuries by Susan Lynn Peterson, Ph.D, publication date 2010, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-197-2