A tincture is a great way to extract the powerful medicine locked away in plants and preserve it for later use. While teas will spoil within a few days, tinctures will keep at room temperature for months if not years – yes, years – without spoiling or losing their effectiveness.
While some medicines are soluble in water, and will come right out of the plant material in a simple tea, other medicines need something a bit stronger for extraction. The anti-inflammatory compounds in Goldenseal are a good example. Goldenseal can be boiled for hours without extracting the most potent anti-inflammatory compounds. A simple alcohol solution, on the other hand, can pull this out with ease.
Some compounds are water soluble, while others are only alcohol soluble. Other compounds, like the immune boosting compounds in Echinacea, are extraditable either by water or alcohol. Do your research, and find out if the herb your trying to use is best used as a tea or tincture.
If your herbs are alcohol soluble, it’s actually remarkably simple to make your own tinctures at home.
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Start with a non-reactive seal-able container, such as a glass jar. Choose your herbs, either fresh or dried. For a tincture, it’s fine to use either. Just know that you’ll need more fresh herb to achieve the same strength as you would dried.
Finely chop your herbs with a knife, or grind them down with a mortar and pestle to increase surface area. The more surface area, the more opportunity for the alcohol in your tincture to extract as much potent medicine as possible.
There are a number of different ways to measure the herbs and adjust the strength of the tincture, but regardless of how much herb material you measure, the final strength will largely be determined by the strength of the herbs you start with. There’s a lot of variation in plant material based on how it was grown and stored before use.
The folk method of tincture, which is by far the most popular for home use, takes this into account and skips weighing and measuring the herbs. Just pack the herbs into a jar, and cover completely with a neutral alcohol, such as vodka.
As you take your medicine, you’ll need to adjust the dose to both the strength of the herbs and your constitution.
In choosing alcohol for your tincture, ideally you’re looking for an alcohol around 80 proof for most herbs. Higher alcohol percentages, like those in grain alcohol or ever-clear, are necessary for extracting resins, but shouldn’t be used for more delicate plant matter.
Technically, just about any type of alcohol can be used to make a tincture. If you have an abundant supply of whiskey, rum or gin around but no vodka, that works just fine in a pinch. The flavor will be different, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If infusing in whiskey helps you (or a reluctant loved one) take their medicine, by all means go for it. An effective medicine is one that you’ll use, so make sure that you choose both herbs and an alcohol that fits the patient.
If you’re shopping specifically for a tincture, choose the cheapest vodka you’d voluntarily drink. For me, that’s one or two steps up from the bottom shelf. Remember, you’re going to have to drink this medicine and if you choose something particularly harsh, you’re much less likely to take your medicine.
Pour the alcohol into your jar of herbs, and be sure that all the herbs are submerged. The herbs will need to stay submerged while you store your jar in a cool dark place for 4-6 weeks to extract. Every 2-3 days, or as often as you remember, shake your jar to help the extraction.
Once the extraction is complete, strain the herbs out using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer, and discard the herbs.
While it may be tempting to try to extract those herbs a second time into a tea or right into another tincture, each time I’ve tried it I was sorry I did. What’s left is bitter and unpleasant, even if the starting herb was something as lovely as elderberries. Stick to a single extraction, trust me on this one.
At this point, your tincture is ready for use. Store it in tinted glass, like dark brown colored tincture dropper bottles, or something with a similar tint to prevent sunlight from deteriorating your herbal medicine. In a pinch, any clean, dark colored bottle that caps securely will work. Lacking tinted glass, be sure to keep your tincture in a dark cupboard for storage.
Dosage will depend on the tincture and your constitution. Some take tinctures with an eye dropper. Milder tinctures, like elderberry or chamomile, can be poured into a small shot glass.
For bitter herbs, like Echinacea, it’s best to dilute a dropper full of the finished tincture in a glass of water or juice.
As always, with any medicine, be sure to watch for reactions and be careful about potential interactions with other medicines you’re taking, herbal or prescription.
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