I was cutting up my latest batch of freshly pulled dandelion roots to make a batch of herbal tinctures, when it occurred to me that it has taken quite a bit of trial and error for me to get my tincturing process to produce optimal medicinal herbal extracts. And yes, I know that in some of the herbal references, an herbal extract can be different than an herbal tincture. But here I am referring to the soaking of herbs (dried or fresh) in some liquid medium to extract the medicinal compounds so that they mix with the liquid and become what is known as a tincture.
Tincture are medicinally much stronger, by volume, than teas, infusions or decoctions. Thus you get more bang for your buck out of the liquid you produce. And they can be kept for years, as we will learn.
We’ve already talked about the basics of making herbal tinctures. In that post you can learn about the steps to produce tinctures and the types of liquid mediums that serve as good extraction mediums. What I wanted to pass along today are some tips I have learned over the last several years. I have grown and tinctured a variety of medicinal herbs including gotu kola, holy basil, marshmallow, echinacea, jiaogulan, dandelion, ashitaba, lemon balm and others. They’ve all been made only for selective friends and family consumption, so I always have a couple of shelves in our pantry stacked with mason jars filled with interestingly colored liquids. My wife likes to throw a towel over them when the local villagers are visiting, lest we be run out of town as witches.
Here are some random tips I have learned as I’ve made my own herbal tinctures:
- Learn about the herb you are tincturing. Specifically learn which parts (roots, flowers, leaves, etc) contain the medicinal compounds you want to preserve. Many herbs have different benefits associated with the various parts. Dandelion leaves are chock full of vitamins and minerals. Dandelion roots are full of liver and kidney cleansing compounds.
- You can combine herb parts to make herbal ‘formulas’, but with herbs that have significantly distinct effects associated with the parts, I tend to take an isolationist approach and separate the herb parts into dedicated tinctures. For example, I always make separate dandelion root and leaf tinctures. But I will throw gotu kola leaves and roots into the same tincture. Again, learn about the herb you are tincturing. I have a good reference source for that detailed below.
- The key to efficiently extracting the key medicinal compounds in an herb is to use the appropriate menstruum, or liquid soaking medium. Typical menstruums are water, glycerine, alcohol or even wine. In my experience, some mix of alcohol and water is the best menstruum to use. Some herbal compounds are easily extracted in an alcohol medium. Others mix better with water. For example, the beneficial saponins in most adaptogenic herbs such as jiaogulan or gotu kola extract better when immersed in alcohol based liquids. But, the medicinally powerful mucilage in marshmallow does not really mix with alcohol at all. It will, however, mix well with water.
- Alcohol is a valuable component of any menstruum as it acts as a preservative and enables your tinctures to have a much longer shelf life.
- I find that using white spirits such as vodka or grain alcohol are the best mediums. They are relatively tasteless, so they won’t ‘flavor’ your tinctures.
- I vary the alcohol-water mix by using different proof alcohols. Remember, a bottle of 80 proof vodka is actually 40% alcohol and 60% water. A bottle of 150 proof grain alcohol is 75% alcohol and 25% water. So you can see that using differing proof solvents you can establish a medium heavily based in either water or alcohol, Or using a 100 proof alcohol, you have a medium with equal parts of both.
- But remember, tincturing is not exact science. Typically I have found that as long as I use at least an 80 proof alcohol medium, I am going to get good results. A medicinally strong tincture that will keep for years due to the alcohol’s preservative qualities. For some herbs that really do extract well in concentrated alcohol mixes, I will go with anything from 100 to 150 proof white alcohol. I will never use anything higher, such as pure ethyl alcohol, as that’s just asking for liver troubles down the road.
- There is another factor, beyond just the soaking medium you use, that impacts how medicinally strong your tincture is. And that is how long you let the herbs soak. Most tincture recipes recommend shaking the mixture once a day and letting it soak anywhere from 4-6 weeks. Because I am always rotating my tinctures throughout the year, I tend to let a new tincture soak for anywhere from 9-12 weeks. If you are using a medium that has a reasonable alcohol content, you can’t hurt it by letting it soak longer. And the extra weeks just provides more time for the extraction process to run. I’ve heard of some people soaking their tinctures for up to a year. I may try that with one of my batches just to evaluate any noticeable differences in quality. Again, long term tincturing requires alcohol based mediums to prevent the rotting of the plant materials.
- In process tinctures should be kept in a darkened area to minimize light, especially sunlight, impacting any of the compounds being extracted. I keep mine in a corner of my office closet where I can easily get to them for their daily shaking. Some I keep on the pantry shelf in the kitchen. These tend to scare the neighbors when they go in looking to borrow a can of soup or something and see mason jars filled with brownish liquid and lots of dark, floaty things in them.
- If alcohol is a no-no for you, then glycerine also makes a reasonably good menstruum. Glycerine is also easier on the digestive system than alcohol. However, glycerine is not a great medium for extracting oily or resinous compounds. Water comes in third as a menstruum choice as it is even less effective at extracting many compounds.
- Once you are ready to store your finished tincture, put the liquid in amber glass containers and store out of direct sunlight. I use regular mason jars kept in the reasonably dark pantry to store my supply and keep amber dropper bottles filled for easy dispensing.
- If you are interested in learning more about tincturing, including a comprehensive listing of medicinal herbs and the optimal alcohol-water mix to use to best extract their beneficial compounds, I recommend Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech. The link goes to Amazon, but I’m sure you can find it other places online as well. I think Amazon has used copies you can probably get for a few dollars. It is an invaluable reference, both for tincturing and learning about a wide selection of herbs and what their medicinal benefits are. And I will be honest. If you buy thru my link, I will make a few cents as an Amazon Associate seller.
So there you have some handy tips if you decide to take on making your own herbal tinctures. Tinctures are a great way to store and preserve the medicinal goodness that we might normally get via teas or supplements. Teas do lose their potency over time. And bottled supplements are dicey sources of anything medicinally beneficial to begin with. With homemade herbal tinctures you know exactly what you are getting. And they keep for years.
For those who don’t grow their own medicinal herbs, there are many online sources for bulk dried herbs you can use to make them as well. I recommend Horizon Herbs, Yong Sheng Herbs (I had a great visit to their shop in Tucson last week) and Mountain Rose Herbs.
If you have any questions about tincturing or how you can get started creating your own herbal medicine, feel free to post in the comments or send me an email.
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