What is a Decoction?
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Decoction is the process by which hardy plant matter such as roots, bark, seeds, vines, and other less volatile botanicals are boiled in a liquid to extract its curative essences. It is commonly employed for the preparation of stronger or more potent herbal remedies, which are sometimes consumed by straight-up, but more often than not sweetened or diluted with other liquids to improve palatability. Decoctions are often made in inert, non-reactive vessels typically under high heat to hasten the extraction of the curative compounds of the plant matter that is decocted, although some decoctions call for a slow and continuous simmering of the plant matter in medium to low heat. Some decoctions even require a sizable reduction of the ensuing liquid or 'liquor' be done prior to the dispensation of the brew to 'concentrate' the medicinal properties of the decoction.
Next to infusion, decoction is the simplest method of preparing herbal remedies and is typically relegated to processing and preparing spices, rather than herbs. Because of their hardier nature, extracting medicinal constituents from spices can be difficult if done via infusions alone. Constant (and usually high) heat is needed to truly extract the medicinal compounds of spices, and it is only through decoction that this is made possible. Most traditional Chinese medicines are prepared via decoctions, as are a number of Hispanic and Filipino herbal remedies. Magickal potions are also typically prepared as decoctions, regardless of whether or not they contain spices or herbs.
What are decoctions used for?
Decoctions are typically prepared to treat severe or prolonged illnesses that require more potent medicinal compounds otherwise unavailable via infusion. Most recipes that require decoction typically involve the use of roots, barks or seeds that act as demulcents, diaphoretics (substances that induce sweating), antipyretics, or carminatives (substances that relieve gas and griping). Most of these plant matters are typically spices but some are dried herbs. In most cases, decocted medicines are employed for the treatment of fevers, flu, prolonged coughing, recurring stomach pains, and muscular spasms. Decoctions may even be used as emmenagogues (substances that encourage menstruation), diuretics (substance that induce urination) or abortifacients (substances that induce abortion), as such effects are only possible with very potent or concentrated dosages of herbs – a feat otherwise impossible with mere infusions alone. In a nutshell, to employ decoctions is to quite literally commit yourself to ingest a very controlled overdose of herbal compounds that is meant to shock your body into a state of wellness. Decoctions are undertaken where quick, fast, and sure-fire cures are required. Because of its highly potent nature, only a little is taken at a time, usually mixed with some kind of natural or non-reactive synthetic sweetener to help make it more palatable. In most cases, improper dosage of decoctions will almost always result in vomiting or other unpleasant side-effects because of its highly concentrated nature. Expert guidance / consultation with professional physician is advised.
What are decoctions made of?
A typical decoction is composed of hard or solid plant matter such as seeds, bark, roots, stems, vines, and sometimes even fruits and resins. The incorporated plant matter that is decocted may either be fresh or dried. The state of the herb matters very little in this case, since the long 'cooking time' and the high temperatures involved in extracting its healing essences will typically extract everything there is to be got from the plant matter regardless of its condition. As a general rule of thumb however, dried herbs are far more potent than fresh ones, but where possible, always opt to decoct fresh plant matter, as their curative components are far more active and bioavailable. Despite the seemingly 'standardised' rule that only spices and other 'solid' plant matter can be decocted, some herbs, either dry or fresh, may also be decocted if a far more potent brew is desired than is achievable via infusions alone. A decoction may include only one specific plant or plant part, or it may be composed of several plant matters, each with their specific or complimentary purpose. Almost all decoctions have a sweetening agent added to it during its highest boiling point or after having been strained and cooled.
How are decoctions made?
A typical decoction is made by putting the chosen plant matter in a non-reactive vessel full of water and placing the whole over a fire. The temperature may vary from a very strong fire which results in a roiling boil, or a very slow even fire that only brings about a simmer depending upon the desired potency or intended purpose of the decoction. Typically, decoctions rendered in very high heat yields potent bitter brews that are drunk in very small, often high-sweetened doses while those rendered in slow simmers yield equally potent, yet less bitter brews drunk in far more sizable amounts. Plant matter that is simmered rather than boiled is almost usually one that contains some kind of unpleasant compound or effect that is undesired, hence the need to control the extraction, although it may simply be a means to avoid the often unpleasant taste that comes about when 'overcooking' decoctions. When decocting, one may opt to cover the vessel or to leave it uncovered, if a far more concentrated brew is desired, as the evaporation that ensues not only reduces the amount of water, but fortifies the resulting liquor as well, making it twice as potent, yet far more disgusting in kind.
As with infusions, it is best to use non-reactive vessels for decoctions. Articles made of clay or unglazed ceramic is always preferable over vessels made of metal. You must also avoid glazed vessels, as these may contain lead deposits, or are otherwise unfit for exposure to very extreme temperatures. Vessels made of unglazed clay, unglazed porcelain, porous stone, and coral (if you're lucky enough to find such vessels these days) are choice articles for decocting. As a rule of thumb, always soak your vessels in water for forty five minutes to an hour prior to use to avoid accidental cracking brought about by high heat. Always remember to allow the vessels to cool slowly, as sudden drops of temperature can cause them to crack or shatter. The longer you use your chosen vessel, the more it becomes 'seasoned' within and without. A layer of tannins and other compounds will typically form inside, resulting in a thin brown to golden-hued film that enhances your vessel's durability, while an external coating of soot, ash, and calcified or solidified resinous matter may form outside (if you're old-school enough to use coals or wood when decocting) of your vessel, protecting it from possible cracking. If you intend to clean your vessel, plain table salt and warm water will do for both the interior and exterior cleansing, although this typically strips away the protective layer (or patina) that accumulates on the vessel overtime. If you're a clean-freak, this may be a religiously observed, although it is discouraged, as the patina actually improves the functionality of the vessel. Always ensure that your decocting vessel is properly cooled, cleaned, dried and stored away from moisture and potential dangers that may result in its weakening or eventual shattering. Kept simply in this manner, your choice of decocting-cum-infusing vessel (yes, you can use a vessel of your choosing for both procedures) will last you until you hit six feet under, or until somebody else breaks it for you.
A small luxury that you can indulge yourself in (especially in the case of ridiculously cheap unglazed terracotta pots or cauldrons) is to dedicate one vessel for one type of decoction, as the taste, aroma, and even the compounds of various plants tend to accumulate in the interior overtime, helping to generate the patina. Some herbalists actually cultivate this, while others, (dubbed 'purists') believe that this accumulated patina affects the taste and the purity of future decoctions. There really is no hard and fast rule when it comes to this grey area, so go with whatever floats your boat!
Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2013
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