Ok, yes, technically speaking, “tea” is a beverage made from Black or Green Tea (of the Camellia sinensis plant). Other plants steeped in water, like Chamomile or Peppermint, are properly called a “tisane”. Phooey, I say! They all fall under the grand umbrella of the exalted Herbal Infusion, grandmother of the herbal remedies.
All an “infusion” is, really, is plants steeped in liquid for a while. Water, milk, vinegar, oil, wine, vodka... the options are endless.
When you hear an Herbalist talk about an Herbal Infusion, it’s generally meant that your herbs were steeped in hot water for anywhere from 20-60 minutes, or up to a few hours. A longer steep like this allows many more plant constituents, the “phytochemicals”, to make their way into the water and shift it from a simple beverage to a medicinal remedy.
Yes, this will change the flavor! One of my favorite experiments with students is to serve
Any guesses about how each tastes? DIY Herbalism students, do you remember ALLLL the way back to your first class- what were the 3 teas like?
So what about tea bags vs loose tea?
A simple herbal tea bag, like your Traditional Medicinals Gypsy Cold Care or Tazo Wild Sweet Orange or Yogi Echinacea (just a few of my favs!), usually contains enough plant material to make a nice strong QUART of tea- a simple coffee mug doesn’t do them justice. Besides, you can always drink more than a 4-6oz cup anyway- hydration hydration hydration.
Plus, tea-bag tea is usually pulverized, basically a powder, so it infuses much more easily and quickly into hot water than whole or even cut leaves and flowers do. This means you can get away with a shorter steep, maybe 10-15 minutes, than you would want for loose tea- more like 20-60 minutes.
That simple tea bag does come at a cost, though. Once reason there’s so much plant material in each tea bag is because the quality can much lower than whole plants. Imagine a Chamomile harvest- the best flowers are sold to the higher priced tea companies, the lesser flowers to cheaper brands, and the fluff that’s left over is scooped up and sold in individual tea bags. Given my druthers I’ll make loose tea every time, but a good quality tea bag for convenience is perfectly good enough
At the other end of the water spectrum are Cold Infusions. Some herbs do much better steeping without heat, usually because of mucilage or aromatics.
Fresh herbs like Chamomile, Tulsi, Fennel, Peppermint, Anise Hyssop, Rose- any of the yummy ones, really- absolutely shine in a Cold Infusion. And herbs like Marshmallow, Cinnamon, Linden, and Slippery Elm have a sugar molecule called “mucilage” that gets slimy and gooey in cold water, which is wonderfully soothing to the digestive tract and nervous system.
Cold Infusions are even more simple than the hot ones, since you, um, don’t have to heat the water. Just put your plants in your jar, cover with room temperature water, cap loosely, and let sit overnight. If your house is particularly hot you could put it in the fridge, but true cold will slow the mucilage from extracting
But what if you want to combine remedies with different times or temperatures? For example, a great combo for an angry gut is Chamomile and Marshmallow, but you’d want a long steeped Chamomile and a cold steeped Marshmallow. What to do?
The answer is- staggering. No, I mean that as a verb, not an adjective!
Do this: make your Chamomile tea in a quart jar around dinner time in hot water. Before bed, when it’s cooled off, add the Marshmallow, and wait till morning. Just stagger *when* you add different herbs to create your different combos.
Staggering is also a good solution for when you would like to include more gentle notes of strong flavors. Try stirring your tea with a Cinnamon stick, if you don't want an overpowering spice. Or add your Chamomile or Rose petals right before serving, if you want the aromatic bloom.
There are so many ways to infuse your plants in just simple water! What are your favorite flavors or techniques?
Fun Fact: I'm an herbalist and a movement coach. Not a doctor, or a pharmacist, and not pretending to be one on TV.
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