Part 4 of the Series Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest
An extract is a preparation containing the active ingredient of an herb or spice in concentrated form. Similarly, a tincture is a medicine made by dissolving an herb or spice in a medium like alcohol (ethanol). For our purposes here, we will focus on the extract. However, they are both made in very similar processes.
Extracts are a derivative of the essential flavorings or oils of fruits, herbs or nuts. The oil itself may be too intensely flavored to use on its own, so it is often diluted in a solvent, which is usually alcohol.
Different flavors require various alcohol levels to produce the desired results and are usually measured in ratios. The time it takes to extract the flavoring oils also plays a part in the making of extracts.
Created thousands of years ago by our herbal ancestors, liquid extracts are still a favorite culinary and medicinal preparation today. Among the advantages of herbal extracts is their ability to preserve the active constituents in plants, their long shelf life, and almost immediate effect. Extracts can be easily added to cooking, baking, water, tea, or juice.
Extracts are easy to make and less expensive than the grocery store brands. Great herbs to use for extracts are the mints (peppermint, chocolate peppermint, etc.), vanilla, cinnamon, orange, lemon, pineapple sage, stevia, and almond. For more on making your own extracts check out this article: 4 Homemade Extracts for Coffee Creamers (and flavoring all manner of things).
Extraction Method #1
- Wash and chop the herbs. Cut the material into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces have more surface area which might yield a stronger extract. Whole materials tend to pile up above the alcohol after shaking; smaller pieces don’t usually do this.
- Place clean, dry herbs in a sterilized jar and cover completely with alcohol. Shake the jar thoroughly.
- Store the jar in a cool, dark place for the steeping period specified, shaking the contents vigorously daily for at least the first week. (Tip: I put my extracts close to my coffeemaker. As I am waiting for my coffee brewing cycle to finish every morning, I shake my bottles of extract.)
- If you notice that your herbs are no longer covered by the liquid in the jar, add more alcohol.
- Sample your extract after the steeping period. If it is not strong enough for your tastes, steep for a longer period of time.
- When the extract is to your liking it is time to strain your extract. You will need a clean funnel and a coffee filter – or – a clean strainer. Put the funnel in a clean bottle. Put the filter or strainer in the funnel. The strainer works for most material, however the coffee filter gives you a finer, clearer product. Pour the extract into the funnel and filter it into the clean bottle. Cap tightly.
- Label and store your extract in a cool, dark place.
In the following table you will find the “Herb Strength Ratios” listed for herbal extracts that usually work. These ratios tell you how much solvent-to-herb can be used to create your finished extract.
For example, 1 part herbs to 4 parts alcohol would break down into a recipe something like this: 1 cup fresh herbs (packed) to 4 cups alcohol.
Fresh versus dried will play a role in how much you use also. These are just averages. Food flavoring is an art and requires experimentation and practice to achieve results. The potency of your herbs is always a variable. These ratios are only meant to be a guide.
Also, keep in mind that if you use an herb in its powdered form, your extract may be cloudy and will need several straining passes through finer materials.
Alcohol (Ethanol) Types
Vodka has the most neutral flavor, but you can also use bourbon, brandy, or light/dark rum to create unique extracts (keeping in mind you do need a 37.5% to 40% (75-80 proof) alcohol for preservative and extraction purposes). For instance, commercial vanilla extracts are typically 35% or 70 proof alcohol.
There’s no need to use a top-shelf or high-proof alcohol when making extract. I prefer using a mid-tier alcohol, not bottom of the barrel but not too expensive, either. Consider a decent quality bottle, as you could have this extract for 10 years or more. A super high proof (more alcohol) vodka won’t extract as much vanilla goodness. Commercial vanilla extracts are 35% alcohol, by law. For home use, I use 80 proof since I am not working under exacting manufacturing conditions.
Combinations to Experiment With
Here are a few of the extracts I have made and enjoy.
- Black walnuts (1 cup) with 1 cup 80 proof vodka and 1 cup 80 proof bourbon.
- Fresh ginger root (1/2 cup) mashed into a Mason jar. To this I add 1 cup 80 proof brandy.
- Fresh peppermint (1/3 cup) packed into a Mason jar. To this I add 1 cup 80 proof vodka.
- Raw almonds (1/2 cup), finely chopped and added to 1 cup 80 proof light rum.
- Vanilla beans (6 beans) with 1 cup 80 proof vodka. My favorite vanilla extract uses 1 cup light rum or 1 cup dark rum instead of vodka. I then add 1 tablespoon organic sugar (light or dark) to feed the rum. The rum I use for this is Ron Rico brand.
Extraction Method #2
Alternatively, you can use food-grade natural vegetable glycerin if you want an alcohol-free extract. Extracts made with glycerin are called glycerites. Glycerites are usually lighter in color, but taste great.
Glycerin is very hygroscopic, meaning it has the ability to attract and hold water molecules from the surrounding environment. This is achieved through absorption with the absorbing substance becoming physically changed somewhat. What this means to your extract is that the glycerin will absorb the liquid within the herbs and spices to flavor the glycerin. Because glycerin is thicker than alcohol and absorbs the flavors rather than extracts them, they do take longer to extract, so be prepared for a more lengthily steeping process.
Since glycerin works to absorb the water molecules, it is best to use fresh herbs. If you do need to use dried herbs, remember there will be expansion as they soak up the liquids, so be sure to leave room in your jar.
- Fill a clean jar with clean, chopped fresh plant material or half-full of ground dried plant material (dried material will expand as it absorbs liquid).
- For successful preservation, a glycerine tincture should contain at least 55% glycerin. For fresh plants, add enough glycerin to fully cover the plant material and fill jar to within one inch of the top. For dried plants, dilute glycerin with distilled water in a 3:1 ratio (3 parts glycerin to one part water) and fill jar with mixture to within one inch of the top.
- Use a knife or chopstick to poke into plant material and release air bubbles while adding glycerin or glycerin/water mixture.
- Cap and label jar, and set the jar in a dark location at room temperature. Let macerate for 6-8 weeks, shaking the bottle every day or two to mix. Top off with glycerin as necessary if plant material pokes above the top of the liquid.
- After 6-8 weeks, decant glycerite into a jar or bowl by pouring through a strainer lined with a few layers of cheesecloth. With clean hands, gather corners of cheesecloth together and squeeze herb material to express every last drop of glycerite.
- Bottle and label glycerite. Glycerites have a shelf life of approximately one to two years if stored in a cool, dark place.
A Word about Synthetic Glycerin (A.K.A. PG)
When petroleum is distilled, propylene comes off as a top fraction. Glycerin is made by adding chlorine to the molecule and then hydrolyzing the trichloropropane produced. Synthetic glycerin is used in exacting applications in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals because of its 99.7 percent purity. According to the Glycerin Market Analysis Report, prescription and over-the-counter drugs were initially formulated with synthetic glycerin and received FDA approval as such. To change to natural glycerin would entail new FDA approval processes.
I do not recommend PG for your extracts even though it has a thinner viscosity that allows it to work faster in the extraction process. I tried it once when I bought the wrong product at the drug store. I found it to have an aftertaste I did not care for. Stick with Food Grade Natural Vegetable Glycerin. You will be happy you did.
Methods to Preserve Your Herbal Harvest, an 8 Part Series
To see the other articles in the series, click on the links:
Part 1, Harvesting, Preparing, and Seeding Herbs & Spices
Part 2, Freezing Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 3, Drying Methods for Herbs & Spices
Part 5, Preserving Herbs & Spices with Infused Vinegars
Part 6, Making Teas from Herbs and Spices
Part 7, Herbal Infused Honey
Part 8, Making SAFE Herbal Infused Oils