WHY A DECOCTION TINCTURE?

If you have dabbled in making your own medicinal herbal remedies, chances are you have likely entered the world of tinctures. Those little dropper bottles of herbs you see in the natural food store rely on alcohol to pull key constituents from plants, and with most plant properties, alcohol does an excellent job. Tinctures are easy to take, keep for years, and act quickly because they absorb rapidly into the bloodstream, bypassing digestion. With that said, alcohol is not the best solvent for a few categories of plant constituents: mucilage, polysaccharides, and minerals, in particular. So, one way to cheat the science is to make a decoction tincture, also called a double-extraction tincture, which combines the processes of decoction and alcohol extraction.

First, let’s review the process for a typical tincture because that’s going to help you down the line. Basically, you place plant material into a jar, cover it with alcohol, shake it periodically, and then strain it out after a month. {That simple}

With fresh plants, you use more plant material and a higher-proof alcohol: 1-ounce of herb {weight} per 2-ounces of alcohol {volume}, preferably 190-proof, but 151-, 100, and even 80-proof grain alcohol, vodka, brandy will do in a pinch. If your plant material is dry, you can use 1-ounce of herb per 5-ounces of alcohol. For most dry plants, use 100- or 80-proof vodka rather than a high proof. Some plants are best tinctured fresh {St. John’s wort, lemon balm, motherwort, milky oat seed, and skullcap lose potency when dried}, and a handful is best dry {cherry bark, elderberries, and alder bark can be nauseating or moderately toxic when fresh}. But for a general rule, opt for the fresh plant if you have it, dried if you don’t.

Why a Decoction Tincture?

A decoction tincture combines the basic alcohol tincture technique with that of a decocted {simmers} tea. In decoction, we rely on hot water to pull constituents out of the tough parts of plants: the roots, bark, and seeds. To make a decoction, we simmer plant material in water for a minimum of 20 minutes, though some decoctions can go for hours or even days. Think outside the teapot: soup broth is also a decoction. {In contrast, an infusion is made when we steep a tea, and this is preferred for most flowers and leaves, particularly aromatic plants that give up the ghost too quickly when simmered – all those aromatics end up in the air, not your tea. Herbs that are best infused are not good candidates for decoction tinctures.}

Decoction also excels at extracting minerals from plants {you won’t get much from a typical infusion, and probably nothing with a standard alcohol extract}, as well as complex starches called polysaccharides from mushrooms {where they are bound up in hard fibrous chitin, inaccessible to the body via most methods}. You also use decoction tinctures for mucilaginous herbs. Mucilage is best extracted in water and hates alcohol.

Decoction Tincture Basics

In our approach to double-extracts, we can take a closer look at the following categories of constituents to get the best results.

Mucilage: As mentioned, slippery, slimy mucilage extracts best in water and actually repels alcohol. What does that mean? A friend once showed me a comfrey root tincture she made in 95-percent alcohol. In an effort to escape the alcohol, every spec of chopped root had pressed itself into a tight ball suspended in the middle of the jar.

Soothing mucilage promotes the healing of irritated or damaged tissues – often used for healing the gut {ulcers, reflux, gastritis, leaky gut} and the skin. Examples of high-mucilage herbs include marshmallow {especially the root}, comfrey leaf or root, and slippery elm bark. Normally, if I want a client to get marshmallow or slippery elm, I’ll administer it in a tea or a powder to mix into slimy food like oatmeal. But you can actually use low-alcohol extracts to give some slip, slime, and soothe to cough formulas, sore throat syrups, digestive formulas, and the like. And while I never use comfrey internally due to potential liver toxicity, I do make comfrey root tincture for topical formulas like liniments or as an ingredient in cream. This is doubly nice because simmering comfrey not only extracts mucilage but also the super-fast, wound-healing constituent called allantoin. {Many herbalists make comfrey oil – and I do too – but allantoin is not particularly oil-soluble. Decoction is the best method for extracting it.}

So, that poor comfrey root bathed in high-proof alcohol? We poured out most of the alcohol and replaced it with water. You could almost hear it breathe a sigh of relief as it relaxed and spread back out throughout the jar.

Polysaccharides: These complex starches modulate immune function, strengthening it where it’s weak and downregulating it where it’s overactive, for example in allergies and autoimmune disease. Polysaccharides extract best in simmering water, and too much alcohol can actually destroy these constituents. It is especially important to simmer mushrooms {all of which are rich in polysacchrides} because these properties are bound up in chitin, a super-tough fiber also found in shellfish shells. You need a lot of simmer time to break those bonds – preferably at least several hours, and even days or weeks. A crock pot works well for this; just keep adding more water as it evaporates to keep everything submerged. Some mushroom fans argue that any amount of alcohol is undesirable, but, unfortunately, it’s hard to get something shelf-stable without it. {This is a hot debate in the mushroom world right now.}

Double-extraction is particularly popular for reishi and chaga because they contain other constituents called terpenes – which extract best in alcohol – that give them antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Astragalus is also notably polysaccharide-rich and a good candidate for a double-extraction, though it doesn’t have the chitin issues that mushrooms have and is much more flexible about extraction methods and simmer times.

Minerals: Think of minerals as rocks embedded in the matrix of your plant material. They are notoriously difficult to extract. You can eat the plants or consume them in a powder, at which point it’s up to your digestive prowess to pull minerals out {cooked and previously frozen plants release minerals more readily}.

As far as medicine-making techniques go, decoctions offer the best way to pull minerals from plants. Sure, super-infusion works well {this is when you steep a full ounce of herbs in a quart container for four hours, then strain it out}, but a decoction ups the game. Simmering herbs for at least 20 to 40 minutes does an excellent job pulling those minerals out into an easy-to-assimilate liquid form. Alcohol does not extract minerals, but it helps preserve your decoction and extracts other beneficial properties from the plant, such as dandelion’s liver detoxification support and yellow dock’s ability to release iron from storage via the liver. Decoction tinctures are particularly popular for yellow dock, but you can also use them for other high-mineral herbs like nettle, oat straw, and horsetail.

The more highly concentrated your tea, the better. Spoonful dosages are preferred over dropper squirts, and you can also mix in blackstrap molasses for additional mineral content as well as sweetness.

Can you double-extract any other herbs? If you are feeling up to it, you could certainly double-extract any herb that does well simmered for tea, such as most roots and spices. Examples include ashwagandha, ginseng, cinnamon, ginger, and Oregon grape root. These herbs do fine with your standard tincture-making techniques {unlike the previous herbs mentioned, which work best via double-extraction}, but they will also do well via double-extraction if you feel like putting in some extra steps.

Double-Extraction Methods

You can combine decoction and tincture in one of three different ways:

  • Simmer herbs to decoct them first, then put your decoction and dregs in a jar with alcohol to tincture.
  • Tincture your herbs first, strain it, and then make a decoction with the solids. Combine the finished decoction and tincture at the end.
  • Make a separate tincture and decoction {with different batches of plant material}, then combine them once they’re done. If you do this, you’ll want to wait until your tincture is ready to press before you do the decoction, since tea doesn’t keep more than a day or two without the addition of alcohol.

I’m going to describe the process using the first method, which is how I make decoction tinctures. It may sound complicated, but it’s pretty easy. The hardest part is the math – ensuring that you have enough alcohol to preserve your finished product – and for that, you can refer to my chart below.

Ingredients:

2 oz dried plant or mushroom material

6 oz {roughly} of water {or more, if you plan to condense your “tea}

5 oz of 100-proof vodka

  1. Optional but preferred: First grind your plant/mushroom material in a blender, coffee grinder, or bullet until it’s coarsely chopped.
  2. Simmer your herbs in water, covered, for at least 40 minutes {though longer is fine}. With mushrooms, you can simmer them for hours or even days. Add more water as needed if too much evaporates. Keep your herbs covered in water.
  3. Strain the herbs out. I use a metal hand strainer over a large Pyrex container. Push with a large spoon or squeeze it in cheesecloth to get as much liquid out as you can. {If you have one, a hydraulic tincture press, potato ricer, or wheatgrass juicer works well for straining/pressing}. You want 5 ounces of finished tea for your decoction tincture. If you have extra and would like to condense it down, return the tea to the pot and simmer, uncovered until liquid evaporates to get you to your 5-ounce goal.
  4. Do not throw out your solids! Put the used plant material into a pint {16-ounce} mason jar. Pour in your 5 ounces of decocted tea, then 5 ounces of 100-proof vodka. Cap it tightly and shake.
  5. Shake your jar every day or so. After one month, strain it, squeezing out as much as you can. This is your finished tincture. It should be approximately 20-25 percent alcohol if made as directed, enough to keep it shelf stable for years. A typical dose is 1-2 ml, 1-3 times per day.

Variations

Fresh Tincture: For each 1 ounce of plant material, you want 2 ounces of finished tea/alcohol. So, for a pint jar, you’ll use about 5 ounces of fresh herb, 5 ounces of finished tea {to keep it covered, you will need to start with much more water, then condense it down after it is strained}, and 5 ounces of 100-proof vodka.

Other Alcohol Proofs: Aim for about 20-30 percent alcohol or more to keep your finished product preserved while minimizing alcohol’s deleterious effects on mucilage and polysaccharides. {The proof number is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume.} You will need to calculate this out because most spirits are not exactly 100-percent alcohol, making the math a bit harder to do.

I prefer using the highest proof spirits available because it allows me to use more of my decocted tea in the final product without compromising shelf stability. But for the sake of simplicity, refer to the chart to get 25 percent alcohol in your finished product.

Decoction-Tincture Cheat Sheet

Follow this handy chart to calculate how much water and spirits will get you to 25 percent alcohol in your finished product.

 

Proof
151-Proof Vodka or Grain Alcohol
190-Proof Ethanol

{made from grain, grapes, sugar cane, or corn
100-Proof Vodka
80-Proof Vodka or Brandy

Percent Alcohol in Spirit
75% alcohol by volume

95% alcohol by volume {treat it like 100%}

50% alcohol by volume
40% alcohol by volume

Use This Much Water
66.67% {⅔}

75%

50%
35% approx.

Use This Much Spirit
33.33% {⅓}

25%

50%
65% approx.

Advertisements