This last week of temperatures in the 70-degree range had me feeling like a squirrel chasing around the garden and yard for anything worth shaking, drying, brining, freezing or simply adoring as we put another gardening season to bed for the winter.
Between dumping buckets of fall bulbs into pits of hope for next spring, I sanctioned equal time for putting together a few batches of infused oils and salve from trimmings of tender herbs boasting their full glory as the growing season comes to an end in Illinois.
Equally paying homage to abundance and to those who carefully produce much larger batches readily available all season long, trying my hand as an apothecary appeases the gardener in me while feeding the culinary artist, too.
Perhaps the pressure of drastic temperature dips pressed me to whip up a bottle of my own oregano tincture this year. Or maybe the celebration that this perennial survived even as Canadian thistles engulfed its entire surroundings.
A go-to during cold and flu season in our house, tinctures are herbal extractions using alcohol as a carrier. Using a medicine dropper, tinctures can be taken orally or infused into steeped tea or added as a last touch for flavoring food. The basic mix is to add fresh or dried chopped herb, roots or berries to a glass jar (metal may react with herbal properties) and then cover with any 80-proof alcohol, and let the concoction rest in a dark cabinet for six to eight weeks to extract the healing properties and rich flavors of the infused herb.
Since tinctures remain viable for many years to come, specific labeling of type of herbs, habitat, portion ratio and harvest dates help denote traits for later reference when making up a new batch several seasons down the road.
Garden maiden tips:
• Investing in amber-colored bottles dummy proofs the dark storage factor.
• Apple cider vinegar can be substituted for alcohol but may alter tincture flavor significantly.
• While specific portions vary using fresh or dried herbs, never leave air in the jar, filling to the top with your liquid and leaving plenty of room for expansion during reconstitution or decoction.
Herbal infused oils
By harvest time, it is usually time to restore our supply of infused cooking oil. I cook nearly every day, and it is convenient to have the robust flavors of fresh herbs bottled directly into my cooking oil. Of course, in many cases the oils can be used in the bath or on the massage table safely, too, and it is deeply gratifying to know the oils were derived from roots, shoots and blooms from the garden.
First, determine your gratification to patience ratio. From using fresh herbs in simmering pots and bottling oils ready to use the next day to drying herbs and cold storing blends for several weeks before use, recipes vary greatly between herbs and carrier oils.
I’ll leave it up to you to scavenge an exacting recipe from more seasoned alchemists and offer instead some insider tips for making herb and oil selections when it comes to exploring herbal infused oils.
First, begin with a carrier oil that fits your meal. Smoke point, or the temperatures at which oils start to burn, can impact how your recipe turns out. High smoke-point oils are more suitable for frying foods without the release of free radicals when the oil becomes unstable. Reserve low smoke-point oils for drizzling or sauteeing veggies where the oils won’t be exposed to much heat.
Next, on to flavor. Some oils have apparent flavor, like sesame oil and walnut oil. For oils where the end product is relatively flavorless, a characteristic of neutral is assigned. Neutral oils like grapeseed and safflower are ideal for recipes where you want the herb or spice flavor to stand out. As a general rule, cold pressed oils are believed to retain the nutrition profile of the plant. Of course, all plants are not created equally, so if you want a boost of omega 3s, reach for flaxseed oil. If added vitamin E matters to you, start with sunflower or avocado oil.
If you have a peanut allergy but dig depth of flavor in your pan, consider substituting sesame or walnut oil, both offering earthy flavor density as a stand-alone.
Last, consider the flavor profile of the herbs you grow before choosing oils. Pungent herbs like sage and rosemary produce very different infusions depending on oil neutrality. For savory oils like walnut, ratios of stringent herbs becomes more critical to infusing a perfect blend.
As with much food processing, the very procedure of how and when oil is extracted from a plant plays a role in its nutrients and storage capacity. Start with virgin, or first processed, oils that are cold-pressed for the highest level of retained nutrients in your oils.
Garden maiden tips:
• Garlic infusions are a basic way to explore varying flavors of oil. Use cloves from the same bulb of garlic in small batches of varying oil to determine your preferred oil base for future infused herbal mass batches.
• Using therapeutic grade oils such as coconut oil or hemp oil double as health and beauty infusions for shampoos and bath salt infusions during drying winter months
Rosemary olive oil
Large winter roasts deserve this touch of fresh lemony zing for braising. Olive oil coats meats and tolerates long, high heat broasting temperatures without burning. This also is a great substitute for butter in winter stews and soups.
This slow cooker method is my go-to for processing a relatively small crop in a quick manner during busy harvest months where sterilizing jars is just too much work.
Prepare fresh rosemary sprigs by running stem between thumb and forefinger to loosen pine-like needles into a measuring cup. For each quarter cup of fresh rosemary, add one cup of olive oil to the slow cooker. For best infusion, washing the rosemary should be avoided as long as no toxic chemicals have been sprayed near the maturing plant. Turn the slow cooker on high and leave uncovered for one hour. Allow infused oil to cool to room temperature before straining and pouring into a tightly sealed jar. Rosemary-infused oil keeps two months in the spice cabinet or stores for up to six months in the fridge.
Garden Maiden tips:
• If washing rosemary is necessary, allow to completely air dry before adding to slow cooker.
• Other woody herbs like thyme and lavender can be prepared similarly.
• Choose a neutral, high smoke-point oil for substituting olive oil using this method of infusion.
When your tincture is decocted and the oils are infused, add some beeswax and make a salve. Salves are a comfort to burns, rashes and general topical aggravations like dry skin or cracked heels. Here is the recipe that treats my bare feet regularly all season long.
Yarrow salve: First, I create a solar infused oil of yarrow using leaves or flowers, just as they come into bloom, whichever is in season. Over the years, I find dried flowers work best and feel most potent for me. Put a cup of dry yarrow in a Mason jar and mix in two cups of olive oil or almond oil. Screw on the cap and keep the jar in the sun for two to four weeks. This yarrow oil can be used for all topical applications on it own. Being much lighter than the essential oil of yarrow, it can be safely used on children, too. Commonly, a few drops of yarrow infused oil can be added to herbal teas.
Step two: Create the salve base by melting one ounce of beeswax in a double boiler, stirring occasionally. When all the wax is melted, take it off the heat and keep it aside to cool down a bit. Stir in one cup of the prepared oil infusion and mix well.
Pour the mixture into small tins that you can carry around in your bag so that your homemade salve will be at hand when you need it the most. Use it on rashes, insect bites, minor cuts and scrapes. Some find relief as an effective headache remedy. Before modern medicine, a yarrow poultice was used on the battlefields to staunch bloodletting and reduce infection, earning its common name, soldier’s woundwort.
Share your favorite infusion combinations with me at gardenmaiden.com.
HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.