In the world of Herbalism and natural medicine there are a number of terms that you need to learn if you want to really understand how natural medicine works. I know I was often confused by terms like “Tincture, Elixer, Extract and Infusion.” They all sounded a bit daunting to me but as I have been interested in making some of our own backyard medicine, I have done quite a bit of research so that I can understand it all a bit better. This will be a weekly series for a bit here, so that you too can learn some of this great terminology as well as how to make your own medicinal products at home.
Let’s remove some of the mystery and get down to business, herbalist style.
What is a Tincture?
A tincture is an herbal preparation made by using some form of consumable alcohol as a solvent and preservative. In the modern world think of things like cough syrups that have a base of alcohol to stabalize and preserve the synthetic drug for a longer shelf life in your local pharmacy.
In our homes however, a tincture would be made by finely chopping up a dried or fresh organic herb and steeping it in alcohol (only consumable alcohol). A tincture is generally recognized as 1 part herb to 3 parts alcohol when the preparation is made. The alcohol percentage used for most tinctures should be between 40% to 70%. There is a great table from Mountain Rose Herbs Blog that shows us how this should best be used:
40% – 50% (80-90 proof vodka)
• "Standard" percentage range for tinctures.
• Good for most dried herbs and fresh herbs that are not super juicy.
• Good for extraction of water soluble properties.
67.5% – 70% (½ 80 proof vodka + ½ 190 proof grain alcohol)
• Extracts the most volatile aromatic properties.
• Good for fresh high-moisture herbs like lemon balm, berries, and aromatic roots.
• The higher alcohol percentage will draw out more of the plant juices.
85% – 95% (190 proof grain alcohol)
• Good for dissolving gums and resins – but not necessary for most plant material.
• Extracts the aromatics and essential oils bound in a plant that do not dissipate easily.
• The alcohol strength can produce a tincture that is not easy to take. Stronger is not always better!
• Often used for drop dosage medicines.
• Will totally dehydrate herbs.
The process of making a tincture is not one to be completed in an afternoon on a whim, you need to steep your herb in the alcohol for 6-8 weeks and remember to shake often and check for evaporation (you don’t want your herbs exposed to air, they need to remain submerged). At the end of the process you need to use a cheesecloth to strain the herbal bits out and the colored liqud you are left with is your tincture.
Keep in mind that the medicinal herbs that you have extracted with the alcohol are now in a very strong base. I do not consume alcohol at all, with the exception of in a medicinal dose, so I must share that the doses of tinctures are not meant to be consumed as cordials, they are often used in dropper or teaspoon form strictly for their medicinal value. Think about it like this, the vanilla you use in your kitchen is actually a tincture, it is made by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol and is used to add the flavor of vanilla to your food, you wouldn’t drink this straight up though.
What kind of tinctures would you want to make and what can you treat with tinctures?
Here is a recipe for Chamomile Tincture that can be helpful for headaches, toothaches, stomach upset and colic symptoms as well as teething.
Valerian Tincture recipe for restful sleep and calming.
Echinacea Tincture for boosting immunity during the winter months when cold and flu season is in full swing.
Hawthorne Berry tincture to promote healthy blood pressure.
Migrane tincture made with feverfew, lemonbalm and peppermint.
Have you made a tincture and want to share the recipe? Leave it in the comment section and come back next week for part two (Elixers).
Update: Related post What is an Elixer and How Do I Make One? and Best Ever Elderberry Syrup Recipe (with Echinacea & Slippery Elm)