Isn’t it wonderful to reconnect with friends from long ago? Cathy — a friend of mine from way back — texted me earlier this week after reading my post about daily art journaling. One of the day’s entries I shared was about how I was making face masks and my Muscle Magic salve for our son to take with him on his trip back up to Alaska for salmon fishing. “How do you make Muscle Magic?” Cathy asked. She told me she’s been paying $45 for a small jar of salve for pain. “It’s easy,” I texted back. “But first you need to make an herbal infusion.”
I took some dried comfrey over to her so she could get started with that infusion, and ended up spending two delightful hours chatting with her and touring her amazing garden(s). The photo above is my “Draw Your Day” description of our visit. But back to the salve … I promised Cathy I’d post the information here on how to make an infusion.
What is an herbal Infusion?
An herbal infusion is a process in which the chemical components of an herb are extracted into a carrier oil. Since herbs each have specific uses, energetics and actions, it’s very easy to customize a salve by using herbs with specific properties. The recipe below is for a salve meant to address muscle pain. So for that, I know I want to infuse arnica and comfrey leaves. Can you use just one or the other? Absolutely. Can you just use olive oil? You can. It’s just that if you first infuse that oil with an herb that addresses pain, you’re going to get a bigger punch.
At the moment, I’m growing my own arnica and comfrey. Arnica is an annual, so I will have to plant it each year. But comfrey is forever. I mean forever. I have three very large comfrey plants right now, and if I were to go out with a shovel and slice off a part of the root right now (quickly, recklessly, not giving it thought and not trying to be careful) and plant it somewhere else, I”d have another giant comfrey plant in no time. You can’t kill comfrey.
How do you make an herb-infused oil?
You have three options:
- The “cold” method, (otherwise known as the “folk” method) whereby you use the sun to steep the herb and oil. First, take your dried herbs and crunch them, grind them or finely chop them (but not too finely or you’ll have trouble straining them later). Fill a jar 2/3rds with those dried herbs, cover with your choice of carrier oil (olive oil, fractionated coconut oil, jojoba, sweet almond, hemp), leaving at least 2 inches of head space, and stir to make sure the dried herbs are completely covered. If you’re new to all this and want to try out different carrier oils, this set gives you a selection to experiment with. Cover and set on a sunny windowsill. Leave for a minimum of three weeks or up to several months. I often start several batches of different herbal oils on my windowsill in the late summer when I’m harvesting herbs from my garden, and then leave them until late fall or winter when I have more time to make salves and lotions.
- The “hot” method, which is helpful when you are pinched for time. For this method, you can use a crock pot (regular size or this super cute mini crock pot. If you chose to use that, you could designate it for just this purpose instead of having to clean it out each time) or the yogurt function on an Instant Pot. That’s what I use when I’m pressed for time, but I’m eyeing that little crock pot. I use my Instant Pot nearly every day for one thing or the other. If you don’t have one, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s a game-changer — especially for things that would otherwise take you 18-20 hours to make, such as my Kalua Pork. If you do decide to use a mini crock pot, you can just put your herbs and carrier oil in that and cook on low (with the lid OFF). If you’re using a regular crock pot, put herbs and oil in a mason jar or other heat proof container as directed above and secure the lids. You don’t want the mason jars directly on the bottom of the crock pot, so either place the jars on a rack that fits inside the cooker, or lay a tea towel on the bottom of the crock pot and place your mason jars on that. Then fill the crock pot up to about 3/4ths the height of the jars, turn it to low heat, and leave overnight (Do not put the lid on the crock pot).
- The alcohol intermediary method, which is a two-step process. This is fairly new to me, but it’s become my favorite method, because the addition of the alcohol makes the end product more shelf-stable. Plus, alcohol extracts more of the herb’s properties than the oil by itself. For this, you’ll need just a few tablespoons of grain alcohol (Everclear) or vodka. The vodka has water added and is less potent, but Everclear is hard to get in many states. Here in Washington, I buy mine at one of the Tribal liquor stores. I like to dash in and dash out, and in as few trips as possible, so I usually buy a few at a time. The first time I bought it to make tinctures, I went a little crazy. The guy at the counter looked at the four bottles in my hand and said, “Looks like someone’s partying tonight.” My answer — “I’m not drinking it! I’m making tinctures!” — sounded contrived, even to my own ears. I don’t think the three snickering people in line behind me believed that either. Aaaannnyway … put your dried herbs in a blender, add 1-2 tablespoons of alcohol, and blend until the herbs are chopped, but not too finely. If you’re not going to need the blender for the next 5-24 hours, you can leave the mixture in that and cover the top. Otherwise, pour it into a mason jar, cap it, and let everything sit for 5-24 hours. Then remove the cap, add enough oil to cover the herbs, and blend again with the blender lid off for about five minutes. You’re heating the concoction a bit, which will help some of the alcohol to burn off. After that, all you need to do is strain the mixture through a very fine sieve or some cheesecloth into a clean jar, and store in a cool, dry place. When you’re ready to make a salve, this step will already be done — and you’ll be glad!
So that’s the first step in making salves or lotions. If you’re interested in trying out a salve for pain, here’s my Muscle Magic recipe, which is one that I try to always have on hand.
What about you? Do you make any salves you’d like to share?