Making Herbal Tinctures: Part II

Mortar and Pestel - Copyright 2012 Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Last week, in Making Herbal Tinctures: Part I, we discussed the different types of solvents (menstruum) used to make high-quality herbal tinctures, including alcohol such as vodka, Everclear, brandy and wine, as well as non-alcohol solvents like vinegar and vegetable glycerin.   But choosing the right solvent is only a small part of the equation.  Indeed, measuring your ingredients properly is the critical key to creating reliable and consistent tinctures.

While the internet is a great place to do research, oftentimes the information being conveyed is poorly written, inaccurate, or both.  I have seen my share of instructions on how to make tinctures.  Unfortunately, the advice is usually to stuff a jar full of herbs and cover them with alcohol.  While this technique can technically produce a “tincture”, the resulting product is often weak and ineffective.  The only way to make useful and consistent tinctures time after time is by properly measuring the ingredients.  This is very important since dosages are based on potency.

Understanding Ratios

Knowledgeable herbalists begin their careers learning to make quality tinctures using the ratio system of measurement.  At first, ratios may be a bit confusing, but you will quickly see how easy they are to use and why they are so important.

Ratios simply represent the quantity of herb in relation to the volume of solvent.  In my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, I use only two ratios when discussing tinctures – the 1:2 (one-to-two) ratio and the 1:5 (one-to-five) ratio.  Both make excellent tinctures for home use.

The idea behind a ratio is simple. The first number is basically the physical measurement of herb used in the tincture.  When using a 1:2 ratio, one part herb is combined with two parts solvent. For example: If you have 2 cups of chopped herbs (gram weight will vary with each), you will need 4 cups (948 ml) of solvent to soak it in (2 x 2 = 4).  The 1:5 ratio follows the same line – one  part herb to five parts solvent.  For this ratio, 2 cups of herb will require 10 cups (2.37 L) of solvent (2 x 5 = 10) to soak it in.

But what if you only have so much solvent to use and want to know how much herb you need to make a good tincture with the solvent you have, simply divide the amount of solvent by either 2 or 5.  For example:  Assume you are using the 1:2 ratio and you have 16 oz. (473 ml) of solvent. Divide 16 by 2 (16 ÷ 2), and you get 8.  Therefore, you will need 8 oz. (227 g) of herb to soak in your 16 oz. of solvent.  Pretty simple.

This technique applies to any type of measurement system including ounces, tablespoons, cups, pints, quarts, milliliters, liters and so on. S tick with the same measurement equivalents (either standard or metric) for both herb and solvent to make conversion easy.  To assure proper measurements, always use the right measuring devices.   If you are measuring by weight, use an electronic scale.  If you are measuring by volume, use the appropriate measuring cups.
Dry ingredients (herbs) are measured in cups  that you use for flour.  These stack together like measuring spoons.   When measuring liquids, use only measuring cups meant for liquids. These often have a handle and pour spout.

Choosing the Right Ratio

So how do you know which ratio to use for the various herbs you would like to tincture?  It’s very simple, really.  The drier the herb or ingredient, the more solvent you want to use.  Thick woody leaves, spices, roots, bark, seeds, and other hard, dry materials are tinctured using the 1:5 ratio.  Fresh herbs, non-woody roots, green seeds, flowers, and flower petals are generally tinctured at a 1:2 ratio.

Juicy or very fleshy herbs (such as chickweed) should be allowed to wilt on paper for up to twenty-four hours before tincturing.  This naturally reduces the amount of water being introduced into the solvent, reducing potential spoilage problems.  Sometimes alcohol tinctures using very hard or dry herbs can have just a very small amount of water added to the solvent to help rehydrate the material and extract the water-soluble properties.  In cases such as this, use no less than 95% alcohol or your tincture may spoil while soaking.

Creating Your Tincture

Begin making tinctures by measuring the herb or herbs you want to use. I highly suggest making single herb tinctures (also known as “simples” or “neat” tinctures) until you feel like you know enough about herbs to combine them effectively. Focus on herbs that provide the medicinal action desired (anti-inflammatory, antifungal, etc.) and avoid adding too many herbs to any one tincture.

The amount of herb and solvent used will determine the size of the container in which the tincture will be made; any kind of glass or crockery is fine, but avoid metal, which can react with both the herbs and the solvents. Mason jars are an excellent and convenient choice.

Carefully wash and dry the jar and — before you put anything in it — label it with the name or names of the herbs going into it, the type of solvent used and the date of preparation.  Do not skip this part!  It is much too easy to forget what is in a tincture jar and after the tincture has “cooked” for six weeks, the herbs inside won’t resemble anything like what they did when you started.

Now prepare the herbs as you would for making infusions or decoctions – by crushing, bruising or chopping – then measure and place them in the jar. Measure out the solvent and pour this over the herbs. Press the herb below the level of the solvent and seal the jar. If the herbs are still floating after twenty-four hours, a weight should be added to keep them below the surface of the solvent to prevent spoilage. Use any object that will fit in the jar, as long as it is not metal, wood, or toxic. Shot glasses, plastic lids, or zipper-type freezer bags filled with air all work well. If a weight is not used and the herbs float to the top, the jar must be shaken every single day for the duration of the soaking process to prevent spoilage.

Put the jar in a warm and completely dark place, such as a closet. Here the tincture should soak for two to six weeks, depending on the herb, the temperature, the solvent and your patience. Check the tincture once a week and look for any signs of problems, such as mold, but don’t open or disturb the jar unless it is absolutely necessary. Once the tincture has soaked, pour it through several layers of cheesecloth or a reusable jelly bag into a clean jar. Repeat this process until the tincture is clear, with no apparent residue. The bag containing the herbs should be squeezed to remove as much of the liquid held in the herbs as possible.

Storage and Use

After soaking and straining, your tincture is ready to bottle and use. The ideal vessel for a finished tincture is a dark amber or blue bottle. If the bottle does not have a built-in dropper, one can be bought at almost any health food store and kept with the tincture in a little cotton drawstring pouch or attached to the neck of the bottle with a rubber band or string. Blue- or amber-tinted bottles are the best because they prevent ultraviolet light from penetrating the surface of the glass and degrading the tincture. If a clear bottle is used, store it in a dark place or keep it in a heavy cotton drawstring pouch at all times. Your local health food store should be able to either sell you the bottles you need, or provide you with the name of an herbal supply store that can. Don’t forget your online resources—they can be invaluable. And again (this can’t be stressed enough), don’t ever use a tincture unless it is clearly labeled with the entire contents, date, and the intended use. Guessing is never recommended.

You can read more about herbs and herbal tinctures in my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs.

© 2012 Jill Henderson
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz

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10 responses to “Making Herbal Tinctures: Part II

  1. How do you do the ratio if you want 1:5, but the dried herb is to fluffy and the 5 does not even remotely cover the the herb?

    • Hi Stephen. That can sometimes be a problem. Try crushing or chopping the herb before covering with alcohol or using a weight to press it down into the bottom of the jar often helps. If you feel you need to use more oil to cover the herb, then do. And if you want to increase the strength to make up for the difference in the ratio, you can reuse the solvent using a fresh batch of herb. Hope this helps!

  2. Have you ever tried making a decoction into a tincture? As different properties of the herbs are released through the cooking process vs the tincture/ soaking process, I wanted to try making my herbal decoction and then adding the glycerin and allowing it to sit in a dark place? Do you have any suggestions or advice on this?

    • Hi Kendra. No, I’ve never tried that, but I think you could work with the idea and come up with something that works well for you. As you probably know, a tincture is made by soaking fresh or dried herb in a solvent like alcohol or glycerin. You could add glycerin to your decoction, but it won’t really be a tincture – it’ll be a decoction with glycerin in it. It also won’t last very long and you will need to refrigerate it and use it quickly. As you mentioned, tincturing extracts different types of compounds from plant matter than decoctions do, and since your plant matter will have already been heated, many of those compounds extracted by glycerin will either no longer be present or will have changed in composition. I would suggest that you make a true tincture from the plants you are interested in using and then, when you are ready to use it, make a decoction using the same herbs and then add the tincture to the decoction. This way, you get the best of both methods. Sure hope that helps! Let me know how it goes!

  3. Pingback: Healthful Ginger for the Holidays | Show Me Oz

  4. Pingback: Making Herbal Tinctures: Part I | Show Me Oz

  5. I am making a tincture and trying to keep all the terpenes in it. When you say strain it until clear, what do you mean by that? Are coloured tinctures generally bad? I’m not too sure what all is involved with making the coloring but i assume the terpenes have a roll in it, no?

    Thank you. Good read, ive been trying to understand what ratios are good in maximising my tinctures to their full potential wout exceeding the limit of how much my solvent can take.

    • Hi Andrew.
      Thanks for the kind words. I’m so glad the article helped you understand ratios a bit better. I know I struggled for a while with that at first, too.
      When I say the tincture should be clear, I am referring to filtering the finished tincture and removing all the organic solids, not the color of the tincture. It is completely normal for tinctures to turn various colors while steeping due to the organic material used to make them.
      Hope that helps and best of luck!

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