If you look into my craft room, you will see shelves lined with small, cobalt-blue bottles that have mysterious liquids floating in them. My husband likes to tease that it looks like a witch's apothecary. Really, those bottles are filled with my own herbal preparations, and there is nothing witchy about having bottles of tinctures and extracts. In fact, these products are very useful for everyday things, and easy to make yourself. I like tinctures and extracts for many reasons, but the thing I enjoy most about them is their long shelf life. A tincture will last you virtually forever as long as it is stored properly.
Before I get down to describing the actual process of making a tincture or extract, an explanation is in order. What exactly is a tincture? What is it used for?
What Are Tinctures and Extracts?
Usually, tinctures and extracts are made by the same process. The medicinal qualities of a particular herb are extracted by placing the plant matter in a drinkable alcohol, such as vodka. Extracts are generally more concentrated than tinctures (1 part herb to 1 part alcohol), whereas tinctures may be more dilute (maybe 1 part herb to 4 parts alcohol). Apple cider vinegar and glycerin are also sometimes used to make tinctures, but these liquids will decrease the shelf-life of your tinctures.
Tinctures are primarily used for medicinal purposes. For example, a tincture made with Calendula officinalis is a wonderful addition to a first aid kit, while a tincture of Escholzia californica (California poppy) will help to relieve headache. Tinctures can also be used in homemade air fresheners, personal hygiene products, and beauty products.
Extracts are generally used for cooking, since it really concentrates the flavor of the herb or plant. The most famous extract is probably vanilla, though there are myriads of others that can add flavor to your meals. In addition to exctracts' culinary uses, they are also used medicinally and in beauty products.
Tinctures and extracts are simple to make, and I have gone through the steps below. Please be sure that you are using herbs that you have 100% identified as being safe, especially if you are foraging in the wild for plant material. Also, be sure that you are using drinkable grain alcohol, not isopropyl or wood alcohol, which is toxic. And lastly, always label each tincture with its contents and the date it was made.
How to Make a Tincture
Ingredients and Supplies:
1/4 cup dried herbs or plant matter (1/2 cup if using fresh)
1 cup 80-100 proof vodka or rum
Place the herbs into the jar, and pour the alcohol on top. Tightly close the jar and shake it well. Set the jar in a cool dark place to steep. You will want to shake the jar every few days to help it along. I will generally leave my jar to steep for at least two weeks, but sometimes I will leave them for as long as a month or two. There really isn't much danger in leaving it for too long, since alcohol functions well to inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses--which makes it a good antiseptic.
Once it has steeped long enough, you will need to strain the herbs out. I like to use nylon from old (but clean!) pantyhose, but cheesecloth or muslin will work just fine. Squeeze the herbs to get as much of the tincture out as possible. You can then carefully pour your tincture back into the cleaned jar, or into another container that you would like to store it in.
You will want to store your tinctures in a cool, dark place. I will generally use small, dark-blue bottles to store my tinctures. Dark bottles do a better job of keeping out light, which is important in keeping a long shelf life.
Dosage: For using medicinally, the best dosage is generally 10-15 drops of tincture. You can drop it directly in your mouth, but if the taste bothers you, it might be best to mix it into a glass of water. If you would like to eliminate the alcohol in the tincture, stir it into a cup of hot water. The heat will cause the alcohol to evaporate.
Some Herbs to Use for Tinctures
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) - Anxiety, insomnia, stomach upsets
California Poppy (Escholzia californica) - Headache, insomnia, tooth pain
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) - Fever, diarrhea, bug repellent (Note: You may want to be careful if you have cats. I used catnip tincture as a bug repellent once, and my cat latched on to my leg. It was funny as heck, but just a warning!)
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) - Externally for cuts, scrapes, bruises, bug bites, and other skin irritations
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) - High blood pressure, gout, cramps, liver problems
How to Make an Extract
Ingredients and Supplies:
1/4 cup dried herbs (or 1/2 cup if using fresh)
1/4 cup 80-100 proof vodka or rum
Proceed as in making a tincture (above).
Some Herbs and Plants to Use for Extracts:
Vanilla beans - Used in culinary dishes, air freshener, beauty products
Almonds - Culinary dishes, beauty products
Apples - Culinary dishes
Cinnamon - Culinary dishes, medicinal uses, beauty products
Ginger - Culinary dishes, medicinal uses, beauty products
Lemon/Lime - Culinary dishes, air freshener, beauty products
Peppermint - Culinary dishes, beauty products, medicinal uses
Once you have mastered making a basic tincture or extract, you may want to experiment a bit with blends. By adding more than one herb to your mix, you can customize tinctures to be used as medicines, or create new extract flavors to use in recipes.
Some good combinations are:
Lavender and Vanilla - Air freshener, beauty products
Valerian and Scullcap - Promotes relaxation, reduces tension, fights insomnia
Ginger, Peppermint, and Cinnamon - Helps with upset stomach and indigestion
Green Tea and Calendula - Acne
Lavender, Catnip, and Lemon Grass - Bug repellent
Echinachea, Thyme, and Cayenne - Cold and flu relief
Making a tincture or an extract is a simple and inexpensive project. It can be done in warmer months, when there is an abundance of fresh plant-matter to be used, or in the cold winter months, using herbs you have dried. It doesn't require a lot of time or attention, but when used properly can be a wonderful addition to your kitchen, medicine cabinet, house keeping, or beauty regimen.