An herbal tea infusion is
perhaps the simplest preparation (aside from eating the plant raw) you can
make. It involves either fresh or dry herbs, good quality spring or well water,
a pot with a lid (or a mason jar with lid) and a strainer. Infusions work well
for delicate herbal parts: leaves and flowers, usually. You can use any amount
of herb you wish, from 2 Tablespoons (dry) per quart of water for a beverage
tea, to ½ cup (dry) per quart for a medicinal brew. Use twice these amounts for
fresh herb infusions.
For a hot infusion: First, set your water to boil. Then, take the herbs (fresh or dry), remove the stems and any discolored leaves, chop the herbs coarsely, and put them in the pot. Once the water has reached a boil, remove it from the heat immediately and pour it over the herbs. Cover, and let the infusion steep for at least 30 minutes. You can leave it much longer (24 hours) if you wish. After it is done steeping, strain and serve. Teas will usually not keep for longer than 24 hours after straining.
For a cold infusion: First chop your herbs, fresh or dry. Place them in a pot or a mason jar, and pour cold spring or well water over them. Stir the herbs in well. Cover, and let steep for 24 hours. This provides a wonderfully delicate tea, subtle in flavor and rich in volatile constituents like essential oils. Good for herbs like Peppermint, Spearmint, Chamomile, Fennel, Marshmallow. The basic idea of a cold infusion is to extract the medicinal qualities of the herbs without damaging them with heat.
Compresses are external applications of hot herbal infusions. Basically, you will prepare a hot infusion and soak a clean cloth or bandage in it. Apply the cloth, while still warm but not scalding (test on the back of your hand) to the affected area. Compresses are particularly good for sprains, strains, and bruises (alternate compress with ice in these cases); rashes; or as an aid in detoxification (like a Peppermint compress applied to the chest during a bad cold or flu). Leave the compress on for 5-10 minutes, or until it cools down, then warm up the infusion and re-soak the rag, applying it for another 5-10 minutes. You can keep repeating this process until all the infusion is gone.
An herbal decoction is a preparation usually reserved for the tougher plant parts, like roots, seeds, or barks. Like an infusion, it requires, in addition to the herbal material, good spring or well water (solvent), a flame-resistant pot with a lid, and a strainer. Decoctions usually require a little less herbal material than infusions, both because the herbs you’re using can be more concentrated in medicinal power and because they weigh more (are denser). For a powerful brew, use between ¼ and ½ cup of roots or bark per quart of water; slightly under ¼ cup of seeds per quart of water (the seeds are by far the most concentrated part of a plant, and so require less).
Fill your pot with cold water, then add the herbs and cover it. Set the pot on a gentle heat, enough to bring the decoction to a simmer in about 10 minutes. Continue simmering for at least another 10 minutes, or at most 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain into a teapot or mason jar, and cover. That’s all there is to it!
Decoctions can be simmered longer and reduced so that you’re left with less liquid than you started with. For example, a 2:1 reduction would mean that you had twice as much liquid to begin with than in the final decoction, once it’s strained. For example: take 2 quarts ( ½ gallon) of water, and add 1 cup of dry Astragalus root. Bring it all slowly to a simmer in a covered pot, then allow the decoction to simmer for another hour on very gentle heat until there is only 1 quart of liquid left in the pot (you can approximate this by eyeing the water level over the Astragalus root).
Decoctions prepared by reduction are strong, concentrated brews. In practice, it is rarely useful to reduce the tea beyond a 2:1 ratio, as the amount of water left isn’t enough to keep all the good stuff in solution anymore, and it precipitates out of the decoction.
Complex (multi-part) teas
Sometimes you will develop a tea formula that involves both delicate herbal parts (leaves and flowers), and the tougher parts (roots, barks and seeds). This can be a blend of multiple herbs (like a Dandelion root / Nettle leaf / Red Clover flower blend) or a ‘whole-plant’ tea (Echinacea root and Echinacea leaves, for example). You will want to ensure that the tougher parts are extracted properly, but also safeguard the more tender leaves and flowers from damage due to excessive heat. The easiest way to do this is to combine decoction and infusion techniques in a two-step process. As with any tea, you will need your herbs, good spring or well water, a strainer, a flame-resistant pot with lid, and a mason jar (or teapot) with lid.
Begin with all your herbs, individually, measured out in the correct proportions (according to your tea formula). Determine what parts would be best extracted by decoction, and place these herbs in the pot, covered with cold water. Usually you will use a little less than in a standard decoction (because more herbs will be added later), so ¼ cup or less per quart of water should do. Slowly bring the pot to a simmer, with the lid on, as per your standard decoction. Simmer this for 10 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, take the remaining herbs for your formula (the more delicate parts – again probably ¼ cup or less), and place them in the teapot or mason jar. When the decoction phase is done simmering, let it relax for a few minutes and then strain it into the mason jar or teapot, so the hot decoction covers the herbs and begins the second phase, the infusion. You can let this steep as long as you want (30 minutes to 24 hours); some herbalists like to just pour the whole decoction right into the jar without straining it, to let the roots and barks steep even longer. This is fine. When you feel extraction is complete, strain the whole tea and enjoy!
A couple of notes: we use less in each phase of multi-part extraction because we want to avoid saturating the tea with the tougher herbs, leaving no room for the more delicate parts to infuse into. Also, cold infusions are not usually done in multi-part teas, again because cold water doesn’t extract as completely as warm water does, and you would get little of the more tender parts by attempting to cold-infuse them into a brewed decoction.