This reason I chose a pot for the post, is because many combine or confuse infusions with decoctions and use the word interchangeably. I believe that herbal infusions are just wonderful and drink them often, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to you, but there is a real difference between the two.
An infusion is when you pour boiling hot water onto herbs in a cup and allow it to steep for about 5 to 10 minutes, but a decoction is either boiled or simmered for a minimum of 15 minutes or much, much longer, say 2 to 3 hours.
One of my sons had a viral infection that just kept hanging on and on, so when he came to visit me, I simmered Echinacea root for 45 minutes and found it just fine and very therapeutic too, as I drank it with him.
Herbalist never get sick, they just get immune challenged.
Chinese herbal combinations are mostly made as a decoction, (they do have a huge range of pills too) and there is a rule in preparing Chinese herbal teas and that is, ” Start fast and end slow”. What this simply means is that you quickly bring it to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer.
Usually, the length of time simmering is approximately 20 to 30 minutes, but this depends on the practitioner of course. Also, if you are not told how much water to simmer in, usually you cover the herbs by about 2.5 to 3cm / 1″ to 1 1/4″.
Always follow the prescribed number of dosages they give.
Reasons why to make Herbal Decoctions
Many fantastic constituents are bound up in herbs, and are difficult to get the goodness out of, so a period of simmering is required to break open the tough cellulose shell surrounding the benefits.
Decoctions are used in other herbal preparations, such as poultices and compresses, soaks and baths, ointments and creams. How about culinary uses, of which there would be many. But what about cleaning products, such as, soaps and shampoos, hair rinses, and skin cleansers, and don’t forget about your pets, and their ailments. So they can be a final product and then drunk or added to many other products.
If done well, a decoction can become a interesting and very tasty beverage, in others words, you can use it as a replacement for coffee, which is still a herb of course.
I do not believe that ‘coffee = evil’ and that it must be avoided as some would have it, as studies are now coming out that show that it has health benefits too.
You can make decoctions for the sheer pleasure of drinking a rich beverage, it does not need to be medicinal. As you could add it to various recipes for flavouring, into smoothies or develop your own special ‘latte’.
How to do Herbal Decoctions
The basic idea with decoctions is that you ‘boil the life out of the herb and into the water’, but even more so, you use this process on very stubborn parts of herbs. These parts can be seeds, bark, stems, rhizomes, tubers and roots, especially if they are very dry. For example, fresh Ginger root = short time, or Astragalus root = long time.
When simmering a decoction, it is best not to keep lifting the lid to stir or checking on the process, as the therapeutic essential/volatile oils will escape.
If the herbs have become “burnt” not just a little crispy, as crispy is good, meaning the you have drawn out everything, throw out the herbs as they are now no good and have ruined the decoction. Now in saying this, I do mean burnt, because your decoction can become very dark and the herbs can get well ‘cooked’, and be just fine.
Now sometimes, you will be given, a selection of herbs by a herbalist, especially by a Chinese Medicine practitioner, and you’ll find hard tough pieces of root, bark or other dried products, from mushrooms, to fruit, nuts and seeds, to what you might think is a piece of wood. (Well, it sort of is really.)
Now unless you want to chew on these and possibly break your teeth, you can quickly understand why you need to boil it. But now here’s the issue, sometimes you will have very soft and easy products too, in the mix, so what do you do?
You only add each product as they vary in hardness to softness and ease of extraction of the constituents. An example of this would be where tough woody roots or bark will go in first, then thinner or softer items, then dried leaves and flowers, which may only be 5 minutes or less, as you’ll ruin the benefits of the soft light products, by putting them in at the same time.
Ginseng is often simmered separately, because it can be simmer for up to 2 to 3 hours.
A Basic Decoction
Unless given specific directions by your Herbalist, and you want make your own, this what to do:
- Place the dried herbs in a suitable pot
- Cover with water and bring to boil
- Reduce to a simmer and continue until the liquid is reduced down to a quarter
- Allow to cool down some
- Strain and store in a bottle or thermos flask
- Drink throughout the day
Usually, a well prepared decoction will only last a maximum of 24 to 36 hours, 48 hours max, so if it looks or smells different then throw it out.
The typical dosage for a decoction is half to 1 cup 3 times per day
When making a decoction, only use either: stainless steel, glass, earthenware, or ceramic saucepans, pots or utensils, never use aluminium or plastics.
Variations of Herbal Decoctions
Variations really come from what ever combination of herbs you want to try, and how hard or soft the product is.
But one thing that would be worth trying is to use additional herbs in the decoction that alter or improve the flavour, such as Sarsaparilla, Liquorice or Dandelion root, or herbs added right at the end such as Peppermint.
Choice of Herbs for Herbal Decoctions
As mentioned above, normally you would only use tough woody-like products in a decoction, so that would be what you would choose. But you can add other softer herbs, but these can be put in later in the process, or even added once you have turned off the heat, for example, fresh flowers or leaves. These can be added sometimes just for their taste or aromas, as sometimes a decoction can be tough to drink down.
Most decoctions are generally safe, but things you may need to be aware of are allergic reactions, and how long you store it.
Also, beware of low dosage herbs, which can become quite strong in the process, meaning some herbs should only be taken in very small amounts.
Some low dosage herbs are: Lobelia, Blue flag, Arnica, Bloodroot, Celandine, Wild indigo, Poke root and Juniper berries. So always check things out before trying anything ‘new’.
Please remember, this blog cannot and should not replace a health care professional, and is for informational and educational purposes only and is not for medical advice or treatment, and no cure is implied in anyway. If you have a known serious condition, or are pregnant, please consult your health care professional, before use.
Russell a.k.a Herbal Panda
“Keeping your best friend in the house will soon become your enemy”Herbal Panda