Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Herbal How to: Making Herb Infused Oils

This is a copy of instructions for making herbal infused oils for beginners. I use it for teaching demonstrations in the community. If you are a beginner, then I hope you find this useful in your craft making adventures. If you are a more experienced herbalist and you would like to use it or modify it for use for your teaching, then you are welcome to use it as well. If you use this material please give attribution according to the terms of the GNU Free Documentations license. Enjoy!

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Introduction: What are Infused Oils?
A herb infused oil is a base oil such as Extra Virgin Olive oil or Coconut oil that has been steeped with freshly wilted or dried herbs. Herb infused oils are fun to make and can be used for many purposes including culinary, for anointing, as body massage oils, for general skin care, or as a base for natural salve, lotion & balm remedies. Infused herbal oils are similar to essential oils in that they contain volatile oils from the herbs used to make the infusion, however the concentration of the volatile oils within an infused oil is significantly lower compared to essential oils. For this reason herb infused oils have a number of advantages for the average person compared to working with pure essential oils. First herb-infused oils are very safe, whereas working with essential oils is relatively dangerous and requires extreme care in regard to storage and dilution. There are many recipes in books and online for using essential oils, which are not particularly safe. Second, herbal infused oils can be made easily in the home with abundant herbs which can be harvested ethically, respectfully and sustainably in your local bioregion. For example, in Central Florida common plants like Southern Plantain, Elderflower, Pine, Camphor, or Mulberry leaves are a great choice for a making herb infused oils. Plants that are harvested lovingly and respectfully will generously share their healing magic. This is not something that is quantifiable, though many successful herbalists will tell you that the harvester's intention and interactive relationship with the plants is paramount in medicine making. While the energy of infused oils may appear subtle, the healing plant spirit shines through in herbal infusions in a way that is not quite comparable with essential oils, though preparations made with organic and wild harvested essential oils do have their purpose in providing stronger medicine for more stubborn conditions.

There are a variety of methods for making herb infused oils, and each has its own advantage. They each have in common that fresh wilted or dried herbs are used to make the oil. Generally leaves, flowers, twigs or resins are used. The first method for preparing infused oils is the 'cold' method in which chopped herbs are added to a clean glass jar, filled with oil and left to steep in for a number of days. This method has it's advantage in that no external energy is required to make the oil, however with this method the chance of spoilage increases when using fresh herbs due to the residual water content in the plant material. Also infused oils cannot be made effectively using resins with this method. A second method is the crock pot method. This method is very convenient in that it is self contained, however much care must be taken to ensure that herbs are not overheated and burned. The third method, which I will present here, is the water bath (Bain Marie) or double boiler method. This is the method gives me the best results. Using a water bath herbs are heated slowly in a glass or ceramic container which sits within a larger container of hot water. This method is fast and convenient, there is little chance to overheat the herbs, and there is low likelihood of having residual water in the finished oil. It is important that the oil remains water free, because water-containing preparations are susceptible to bacterial growth.

Materials for Making Infused Oils by the Water Bath Method
  • Electric or gas burner
  • Freshly wilted wild harvested or home grown herbs OR dried wild harvested or organic herbs
  • Stable base oil (preferably organic) appropriate for either culinary or external use depending on your choice of herbs and your plan for the finished oil: Extra Virgin Olive oil, Coconut oil, Fractionated Coconut oil, Jojoba Wax, Sesame oil, Lard. Fractionated Coconut oil and Jojoba wax have an unlimited shelf life. When making body oils, persons with sensitive skin may wish to avoid coconut oil or use it at not more than 50% of your total oil solution. Please do not use palm oil for the sake of rain forests in Indonesia.
  • Double boiler which can be made with a small pot and a Pyrex glass container, a mason jar, or other heat resistant glass or ceramic container. Use a glass container than you don't mind recycling if you are working with a resin.
  • Very clean utensils including: spoon or chopstick, knife, funnel, glass storage jar for finished oil, small plate, and cutting board for working with fresh plants.
  • Cheese cloth
  • Sharpie pen or sticker label & regular pen
  • Optional for lightening the thickness of the oil: Safflower, Grapeseed oil, Soy, Apricot kernel, Canola. These oils are lighter and have a shorter shelf life compared to the other base oils listed above. Use not more than 25% of your total oil.
  • Optional: Vitamin E
  • Pipette
Method
  1. Clean and clear your workspace. Gather all necessary utensils and containers. Clean containers and utensils thoroughly in a dish washing machine or by hand with hot soapy water and a small amount of borax. You may also chose to sterilize utensils in the same way that one would do for canning. Another option is to wipe down utensils with high proof alcohol. Let containers and utensils air dry. Oil containers and utensils must remain free from water throughout the infusion making process.
  2. Gather your herbs. If you are working with dry herbs, then organic or wild harvested are the best choice. Mountain Rose herbs is a good source for dry herbs. For fresh herbs, respectfully gather plant material from properly identified specimens that are free from blemish and are at least 8 feet away from any roads. The best time to collect herbs is late morning when there is no dew or rainwater on the plant. Collect not more than 10 percent of a wild population of plants. Depending on your belief system you may wish to ask permission from the plant, explain your intentions, and leave an offering for the plant such as a stone, tobacco, or one of your hairs. Especially for making oils for medicinal purposes it is believed that your oils and medicine will be more potent if you have a good relationship with spirit of the particular plants that you harvest from. Chop herbs coarsely and let them wilt in the shade for a few hours. Wilting herbs decreases the water content of the herbs.
  3. Fill your clean jar or glass or ceramic container with herbs, then cover with the base oil of your choice. Coconut oil and Extra Virgin Olive oil are my personal favorites. I also use Sesame oil very often. Place your herb-oil container in your water bath and turn on heat to medium-high. Ideally you can cover your herb & oil container partially but not completely with a lid. Next let the herbs infuse in the oil for approximately 1-2 hours. The oil should get warm, but not so warm to burn the skin. You will need to monitor the oil and adjust the temperature. To check the temperature of the oil use your clean spoon or chopstick to drip oil onto your wrist. The oil should feel warmer than your body temperature but not so warm to burn the skin. After testing the temperature place your oily spoon on your clean plate. Be cautious throughout this step not to let water from your boiler to splash up into your herb and oil container. You will know when your oil is becoming ready when it has taken on the color & scent of the herbs. If you have used fresh herbs then you will want to steam off any excess water remaining in the oil before decanting. There are two good ways to check for lingering water in the infused oil when working with fresh herbs. First check the herbs with your spoon, they should have a crisp feel about them. Second, use your lid to completely cover the oil for a minute or two, then look under the lid for condensation. If there is condensation, then continue to infuse the oils with the lid partially covered so that water can steam out of the container. Check again until you are satisfied that the oil is water-free.
  4. Next turn off the heat and remove the oil container from the water bath. Carefully dry the outside of the container and prepare to decant the oil. Place the clean funnel in your clean dry glass storage jar, and line the funnel with a couple of layers of cheese cloth. Pour the oil and spent herbs into the funnel and let strain. When the oil is strained completely, you can squeeze or press the cheesecloth to maximize your oil yield.
  5. If you would like to make a double or triple infused oil then you can repeat steps 3 and 4 with this freshly infused batch of oil.
  6. Double check your infused oil for water if you used fresh herbs. Let the jar of infused oil stand over night. Check the bottom of the jar for water droplets. If there is any water at the bottom of the jar, then you will want to pour the oil into a fresh jar, or pipette out the water droplets.
  7. Storage and shelf life: Now you should have a fresh batch of infused oil that is clear with no remaining leaf or flower pieces. Oils, including infused oils go bad after a time because of oxidation. Rancid oils are oxidized and will have an off scent. To maximize the shelf life of your oils, put it in a container with a small amount of air overhead, keep it cool and dark. If you wish you may add Vitamin E to extend the shelf life of your infused oil: a small amount of Vitamin E. I suggest this step particularly if you are diluting the primary base oils with lighter oils with shorter shelf life e.g. Grapeseed or Safflower. It is less critical if you are using 100% Extra Virgin Olive oil, which has a very long shelf life of a year or more. Fractionated Coconut Oil & Jojoba are exceptions, and do not go rancid.
Suggestions for Herb Infused Oils
Culinary: Oregano, Rosemary, Basil, Mint
General Skin Care: Calendula flowers, Mulberry (Morus alba) leaves, Elderflowers, Plantain leaves
Invigorating Massage oil: Mugwort leaves, Camphor resin, leaves or twigs, Lemongrass, Goldenrod flowers
Congested Chest Massage oil: Camphor resin, leaves or twigs, Lemongrass, Pine twigs & needles, Mint leaves
Anointing oil: Frankincense resin, Myrrh resin, White Sage leaves
Extra strength: double or triple infuse your herbal infused oil
Locally grown: What is growing in your back yard or neighborhood in abundance? Check out a field guide from your local library. There are many medicinal wild weeds, trees, and ornamental plants with culinary or medicinal value that would be great to experiment with.
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