Herbal Vinegars, Oils, and Tinctures

The following article appeared in the October, 2013 issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.

Herbal Vinegars, Oils, and Tinctures

Nina Judith Katz

Herbal vinegars, oils, and tinctures are easy to make and extraordinarily useful. Before discussing how we make them, we need to give some thought to our purpose in making them, because our purpose influences the process.

Herbal Vinegar

The main reasons for preparing an herbal vinegar are for the pleasure of the herbal flavoring in the vinegar, for the nutritional value of the preparation, or as a non-alcoholic tincture.

When making an herbal vinegar for flavor alone, one puts a couple of good-looking sprigs, for example, of rosemary, into an elegant bottle, pours on apple cider vinegar, and closes with some kind of a non-metal lid to prevent corrosion. A few of inches of ginger in a quart bottle of vinegar would yield a nicely pungent, gingery vinegar for spicy sauces.

Vinegar is excellent at extracting vitamins and minerals, but if that is our goal, one needs to use considerably more of whatever herb one is using. For example, we can make multi-vitamin, multi- mineral vinegar from fresh stinging nettle by packing a jar with fresh nettle leaves and pouring enough apple cider vinegar to more than cover the leaves. If you cut up the leaves first, the vinegar will absorb more. After a few weeks of steeping, the vinegar will have absorbed the rich nutritional profile of nettles and contain more minerals and vitamins than your average multi, and in a form far easier for the body to assimilate. This would work with fresh red clover as well. In the winter, when there aren’t as many fresh herbs around us as we might like, these vinegars will give us all of the nutritional value of the fresh plants. If we don’t have a nutritional vinegar left from the summer or fall and there aren’t fresh plants among us, we can make a wonderful vinegar even in the winter by gathering fresh pine needles and filling our jar with that before pouring on the vinegar. Pine vinegar is an excellent source of vitamin C, and it tastes like balsamic vinegar.

We can also make a tincture from vinegar. Vinegar extracts alkaloids as well as minerals, vitamins, and trace elements, so it is an acceptable substitute for alcohol for tincturing alkaloidal plants. To make a vinegar tincture by the simplers’ method, follow the same directions as for a nutritional vinegar.

I prefer to strain my vinegars just before use so that they can continue extracting as long as possible. I give them at least two weeks to steep, but when I make them from fresh plants, I often
give them until the plants are out of season; in the interim, I prefer to enjoy the plants fresh.

To make a nutritional vinegar from dried herbs, fill the jar 1/3 of the way with the mineral and vitamin-rich dried herb, such as stinging nettle or red clover, and then pour apple cider vinegar over the herbs. Dried herb vinegars benefit from daily shaking, as this helps ensure contact between the vinegar and all sides of every tiny piece of the herbs and so aids the extraction process.

When straining the vinegar, squeeze the marc, or remaining plant parts, so as to get every last drop into the vinegar. If the plants were fresh and delicious, then they are now pickled, and may be similarly delicious, so consider using them in salads, marinades, and other dishes.

Herbal Oils

Just as culinary vinegars differ from nutritional vinegars, so culinary oils differ from medicinal oils. Culinary oils need to suit your taste buds; medicinal oils are for topical use and need to be strong enough to be effective. For example, one may prepare a garlic oil by chopping or pressing a few cloves or a few heads, placing into a pint-sized jar, and filling with olive oil. This makes a wonderful instant garlic bread and can be used in sautéing, salad dressings, and on pasta. A similar preparation with ginger would work as well, and pesto is a variation on the same theme, made by chopping up fresh herbs and mixing with olive oil, with or without chopped nuts. I keep my culinary herbal oils and pestos in the refrigerator.

For a medicinal oil, one usually starts by drying the leaves. For example, the first step to making a comfrey or a plantain oil is to harvest the fresh leaves and dry them thoroughly. If they are not dried thoroughly, water from the plant parts can get into the oil; this would make it slightly more likely that the oil would go rancid, and it would make it important to try to remove the water later on. Once they are dry, they are ready to go into a mason jar, and the next step is to pour olive oil over them, making sure that they are covered completely. They need to sit in the oil for at least two weeks, and then the oil can be strained. With oils, it is best not to squeeze the marc, so as to leave the oil with no water or plant materials that could speed rancidity. I keep my medicinal oils in a closed cabinet, preferably one that stays cool.

Saint John’s Wort oil works a little differently. It is best prepared from fresh leaves and flowers, and needs to stay in the sunlight, in as bright a spot as possible. Saint John’s Wort has a particular way of channeling the sun’s warmth that is enhanced by the sun’s influence on the oil. Left in the sun, the oil will turn red; left in a cooler spot, it will not. The redder and darker the SJW oil, the more potent. Saint John’s Wort oil can protect from sunburn, relieve muscle pain and tension, help with neuropathy, and treat burns, whether from the sun or other causes. Once the oil has steeped for at least two weeks and turned a deep, dark red, it is ready for careful and thorough straining; dregs left in the oil increase the risk of rancidity.

Herbal Tinctures

Making tinctures is a similar process, and just as easy. There are two methods, the simplers’ method, which avoids measurements and is a bit more straightforward, and the standard method, which embraces measurements so that one may replicate a tincture with some precision. The plants, of course, defy precision by changing their chemical balances constantly in response to their environment. This is among the reasons why the most powerful tinctures are ones made from herbs growing in, and responding to, the same environment as the people taking the tincture.

To make a tincture from fresh herbs by the simplers’ method, gather the herbs and pick through them to remove bugs, slugs, and dirt. Most people cut them into small pieces; this increases the points of contact between the plant matter and the menstruum, or liquid used to extract the medicinal value from the plant. Some people feel that the plant is happier left uncut and act accordingly. The process of picking through the herbs and cutting them up is known as garbling.

Fill a mason jar with the garbled herb. For a stronger tincture, pack it very full; for a weaker tincture, fill it loosely. The next step will be to pour the menstruum over it.

The menstsruum that most herbalists prefer is a mixture of water and alcohol, between 40% and 60% alcohol, or between 80 and 120 proof. Vodka is an easy choice, because it comes in this proof to begin with. The higher the proof, the longer the tincture will keep. Another option is to buy medicinal grade alcohol, which is 190-200 proof, and then dilute it with water. Since one doesn’t take more than a few droppers of tincture at a time, most people don’t find the alcohol problematic. If you transfer it into a mug and pour boiling water over it, most of the alcohol will evaporate with the steam. It is also possible to use glycerin or vinegar as the menstruum instead of alcohol.

Alcohol can extract alkaloids, glycosides, resins, oils, hormones, tannins, acids, sugars, and starches. Vinegar can extract minerals, trace elements, vitamins, and alkaloids. Glycerin can extract tannins, minerals, vitamins, and mucilage. Water can extract most compounds, although it sometimes needs the help of heat, and water without alcohol does not prevent spoilage. Sometimes one combines vinegar with alcohol so as to extract the nutritional and medicinal properties together; this combination is useful for burdock tinctures, for example.

Whatever you are using, always get the highest quality of it that you can afford. Once the jar is full of herbs, pour enough of the menstruum over them to cover the herbs completely and close the jar. Shake it daily. In two weeks it will be ready for you to strain. When you strain, be sure to squeeze the marc thoroughly so as to get every last drop into your tincture.

Instead of filling the jar with fresh herbs, the standard method uses a ratio of one part fresh herbs to two parts menstruum. This means that for every ounce of fresh herbs, by weight, you will measure out two ounces of menstruum. The rest of the procedure is the same as for the simplers’ method.

With dried herbs, the simplers’ method fills the jar one third to one half full, while the standard method uses a one to five ratio. With the simplers’ method, you eyeball the herbs in the jar and decide when it’s enough to give you the strength you want, and then fill the jar with the menstruum and close. With the standard method, you weigh your herbs. If you’re using 6 ounces of herbs, then you pour 30 ounces over the herbs, whether that fills your jar or not. You can put in one ounce of herbs at a time, and then pour on the five corresponding ounces of menstruum. Once everything is positioned, poured, and closed, the procedure is the same as with fresh herbs: shake it at least once a day, and let it macerate, or steep, for at least two weeks before straining. When you strain, remember to squeeze the marc.

Experiment with various methods; over time you’ll develop a sense of how you prefer to make your tinctures.


Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech

This article is reprinted from the October issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.