THE FINE ART OF HERBAL TEA
by Brigitte Mars
For centuries people have enjoyed the benefits of herbal teas. Humans can’t really digest the raw earth elements such as rocks and dirt, but when a plant grows in calcium or iron rich soil and tea is made out of it, these wonderful nutrients become available, as plants transform these minerals so that bodies can assimilate them.
Nothing warms the body and soul like holding a fragrant steaming cup of herb tea and inhaling its subtle scents as you slowly sip. Why be limited to caffeinated beverages when the world of herbs can bring us flavor, variety, nutrients, and numerous health benefits?
Health food stores offer a wide array of ways to use herbs including capsules, tablets and tinctures. Yet, when one drinks tea, the brain via the nose and tongue is getting sensory messages.
In Oriental Medicine, each aroma and flavor is associated with an organ system of the body. The sweet flavor, as found in licorice and fennel has a special affinity for the stomach and spleen. The pungent flavor such as ginger and garlic helps to improve lung capacity and large intestine health. The salty flavor in kelp or dulse targets the kidneys and bladder. The bitter flavor that we experience in gentian and dandelion roots affects the heart, small intestines and helps improve digestion and aids fat metabolism. The sour flavor that is in lemon grass and sorrel stimulates the functions of the liver and gall bladder. When we savor flavors, very immediate benefits start occurring.
Drinking herb tea gives one an opportunity during busy days to take time out and an opportunity for reflection. Rather than swallowing a couple of tasteless capsules with a gulp of water while running out the door, drinking herbal tea offers time to think about intention. “I’m nourishing my nervous system.” or perhaps, “I’m strengthening my immune system,” as the brain receives signals from the subtle qualities of the plants and know we are being honored.
Teas that are available in tea bags provide convenience for the go-go-go lifestyle. Yet, in order for herbs to be put into tea bags they need to be ground into a very fine cut that exposes the surface areas of the herbs thousands of times, thus allowing flavorful and therapeutic essential oils to evaporate more quickly. This is especially true when the herbs sit for many months before being used. Many companies compensate by adding flavoring to the herbs.
Herbs available in loose bulk form make a wider world of herbs available that with the help of a tea strainer can bring the benefits of less processed herbs into your life. It can also be less expensive and offer a wider variety of flavors and the opportunity to select exactly what you need and want.
When fresh herbs are available and abundant in your garden, they are wonderful to use in herb tea. However, drying herbs makes them available all year round.
Store dried herbs in a glass jar or non-plastic airtight container and label what they are. Storing herbs in light and heat (such as above the stove) can deteriorate the herb quality more quickly. Ideally, Keep teas in a cupboard where they can be protected to better conserve their flavors and therapeutic properties. Nature will provide more herbs the next year, so it is best to purchase no more than you are likely to use within the year.
When making tea, always use fresh, cold water. Avoid aluminum cookware, which is a very soft metal and tends to come off in the food. The best choices are glass, cast iron, stainless steel or un-chipped enamel.
Use about one heaping teaspoon of herb tea per cup of water. When using fresh as opposed to dried herbs, triple the amount as fresh herbs contain high levels of water. Tea can be enhanced with a touch of honey or a squeeze of fresh lemon.
- Infusion (also known as tisanes): This is an ideal method for herbal leaves, flowers, and seeds which have delicate essential oils that would be diminished if boiled. Simply boil a cup of water and remove it from the heat. Add one heaping teaspoon of herb, cover and allow it to steep for ten to twenty minutes. Strain the herbs into a cup before serving.
- Teapot method: Make sure the teapot lid is secure and won’t fall off suddenly as you pour tea. It should also have a strategic air-hole so that tea will pour smoothly through the spout. Teapots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and can delight even the most whimsical of tastes. Fill a china or porcelain pot with hot water and allow it to stand for a minute or so. This warms the pot so that the tea you pour into it will not cool down quickly because of a cold pot and impede the steeping process. Then pour off the water, add loose herbs (1 heaping teaspoon for each cup plus one extra one “for the pot”) and fill the pot with boiling water. Cover and allow the herbs and water to steep for ten minutes. To serve the tea, simply hold a strainer over each cup as you pour.
- Decoction: This is the preferred method for roots and barks which are harder, woodier, and require more energy to extract their precious qualities. Simmer (at a barely-boil) one heaping tablespoon of herb in three cups of water, cover it for about twenty minutes, and then strain and serve.
- Overnight-Jar Method: This an excellent process for extracting the maximum amount of medicinal potential from an herb. It takes time, but is well worth the effort. This method is more appropriate when the goal is more medicinal rather than, “Company’s coming. Let’s have some tea.” Add about two ounces of root or bark or one ounce of flower or leaf to the bottom of a clean canning jar. Cover it with boiling water and put the lid on, allowing the herbs to steep for as long as half-an-hour for seeds, two hours for flowers, four hours for leaves, and overnight for roots and barks. In the morning, strain the herbs out and enjoy the nutrient rich brew. This method is not suggested for licorice root, slippery elm bark, or valerian root. With these herbs it will simply taste too medicinal or in the case of slippery elm, become too mucilaginous to bear consuming.
For those that can’t be bothered with tea strainers, you will find tea balls or infusers in shops where herbs are sold. These are perforated utensils that can be filled with herbs, closed and placed in a teapot or pot of water for the designated amount of time. They work best for leaves and flowers.
Want to make a large amount of tea for a large group?
You may want to purchase a stainless steel coffee urn that is reserved just for herb tea, otherwise coffee flavor will come through your brew. Simply put the herbs in the top “basket” part, simply plug it in and perk. This is very convenient as it allows people to pour what they want, when they want it. Excellent for workshops and cold winter gatherings. For health and environmental reasons avoid styrofoam cups. Either use washable cups or hot/cold paper cups. Wax paper cups will melt and get wax in your brew.
What if you wanted to mix, for example peppermint leaf with cinnamon bark?
Simply simmer the roots and/or barks first. Remove the pot with herbs from the heat after 20 minutes, add the leaves and flowers, and allow another ten minutes for it to steep while covered.
- Avoid over-steeping your herbs as some flavors can intensify and become rather medicinal instead of pleasant.
- Expand your repertoire of herbs-
Remember that herbs can have potent effects and just because something is natural and caffeine-free doesn’t mean that you should be drinking it… Think of the disaster of going to health food store to buy something natural for a child’s birthday party and selecting senna or cascara sagrada (herbs that are often used as natural laxatives)… You could end up with 30 little kids with diarrhea!
~So, know your herbs!!~
Delightful teas to try:
Anise seed (Pimpinella anisum): Lovely licorice like flavor. Anise seed aids digestion and freshens the breath.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): The flavor is pleasantly bitter with an aroma reminiscent of apples. Chamomile helps to relax the nerves and calm the stomach.
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis): Elder makes a delightful decongestant and beneficial brew for the onset of a cold or fever.
Ginger root (Zingiber officinale): Zesty and very warming. Ginger is an excellent way to improve poor circulation that results in cold hands and feet. It is one of the best herbs for improving digestion and nausea.
Hibiscus flowers ( Hibiscus species): Tart and refreshing, hibiscus is rich in vitamin C and mildly antibacterial.
Lemon balm leaf (Melissa officinalis): A lemony flavor that is loved by most everyone. Lemon balm Lifts the spirits and has some antiviral properties.
Raspberry leaf (Rubus species) : With a flavor very similar to that of black tea, raspberry leaf is very rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron.
Rose hips (Rosa species): With a tart taste and antiseptic properties, rose hips are a natural source of vitamin C and bioflavonoids.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita): Flavorful and fresh tasting, peppermint can be a gentle stimulant. It also helps upset stomachs, gas, colic and has antiviral properties.
**The herbs that you strain out of the tea can be returned to the earth by composting or simply opening up your kitchen door and throwing the leftover herbs into your peppermint or whatever patch. Always be conscious of giving something back to the planet rather than just taking from it. An old Hindu saying to remember is “If you have water to throw away, throw it on a plant.”**
Other ideas to enjoy with herb tea include:
- Add herb teas to cider or fruit juice.
- Add herb tea to wine to make a sangria.
- Use herb tea in a recipe for breads, cakes and cookies. (Some herb teas that go well with baked goods include anise, peppermint, cardamom and ginger.)
- Make frozen honey-sweetened herb tea popsicles.
- Add herb tea to carbonated water for a mildly fizzy drink.
- If you have leftover herb tea, you can strain the tea into a clean glass container and refrigerate the remainder for several days. Rewarm the amount you need or it can be taken cold.
- Invite some of your favorite friends over for a tea party!