What is an Infusion?
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Infusion is the process by which (typically) dried plant matter consisting of leaves and / or petals are prepared via indirect heat with the use of boiling water that is poured unto the herbs and left to steep until the desired strength or potency is achieved. Infusions may also involve the use of dried barks, roots, seeds, and stems of plants, although it is typically relegated to the preparation of dried leaves and flowers. Infusion is perhaps the simplest means to prepare an herbal remedy, needing nothing more than a vessel for the herb and water, and the means to heat the water.
Everyone has, at one time or other, made an infusion, since the most poplar beverage of all time - tea - is itself a very simple infusion of tea leaves and hot water. Some infusions may not even call for the use of hot water, but employs cold water instead. This process, known as 'cold infusion' or maceration (in older texts on herbalism) is typically used to extract volatile essences from medicinal flowers or very delicate herbs.
What are infusions used for?
Infusions are typically used to prepare herbal remedies such as leaves or flowers which are otherwise far too delicate to undergo decoction (or boiling). Infusions are preferable over decoctions when making herbal tisanes that incorporate dried herbs simply because the curative compounds contained in the plant matter may be far too delicate or volatile, and will otherwise be lost if exposed to very high temperatures for long periods of time. An infusion of herbs is typically used to treat mild diseases or to provide a quick and easy-to-prepare remedy for trifling ills such as stomach aches, indigestion, heartburn, or minor colds and coughs. As a rule of thumb, the longer an infusion is allowed to sit or steep (literally, to 'infuse' means to allow something to stand for awhile to absorb volatile compounds), the more potent the subsequent tisane or 'liquor' will become and, in some cases, the bitterer. The strength of an infusion typically varies according to several factors including – taste or palatability, desired or required potency, and possible adverse reactions. In most cases, the strong the infusion is, the faster the medicinal benefits are obtained, but some infusions call for only light steeping, as the herbs used may either be too potent or too unpalatable if infused for lengthier periods of time. Infusions are typically prepared as 'short-term' remedies that are reused up until it 'loses its liquor' (literally, infused over and over, until the ensuing liquid runs clear, by such time all medicinal constituents of the herb or herbs are considered 'spent', and the herbs subsequently discarded).
What are infusions made of?
Infusions are made from a wide assortment of dried herbs and flowers although fresh leaves and flower petals can also be infused. The latter often results in a weak liquor with very little to no discernable taste or aroma, which is why in most cases dried plant matter is preferred. Some traditional herbal preparations often make exceptions for a few spices (i. e. roots, bark, seeds etc.), in that they prepared via infusion instead of decoction, although nowadays, such methods are rarely practiced.
How is an infusion made?
Infusions are the easiest herbal preparations to undertake, as all that is required is a vessel to contain both the herbs and the hot water used to extract the herbs' essences. Despite their relative simplicity, infusions are quite difficult to master, since one has to take several factors into consideration such as the water temperature, the potency (or lack thereof) of the plant matter, the intended use of the remedy, and the proper steeping time (which varies from plant to plant). Generally, the hotter the water, the faster the essences can be extracted, but the bitterer the ensuing liquor will be. The reverse is true for barely simmering water, which does little more than just heat the herbs without extracting any of their medicinal essences. Another rule of thumb is the longer an infusion steeps the more potent and bitter it becomes to the point that it can cause detrimental side-effects such as an upset stomach or cramping if drunk even in small amounts. Generally, for a single infusion, not more than an ounce or two of herbs are used, while a half-a-gram or to a gram (plus extra) is usually enough for up to four infusions. Dried herbs are more potent than fresh herbs, and thus can be infused for longer, while fresh herbs are good for one or two infusions, but are then discarded afterwards.
A note on the type of vessels one may employ for infusion: traditional medicinal practices always credit clay or unglazed ceramics to be the best vessel for any herbal preparation. One may choose to purchase a cheap terracotta teapot or (if the budget allows) to invest in a traditional Chinese yixing clay pot. Unglazed ceramics, stoneware, and porcelain (provided that it is lead-free) may also be employed. Glass of course is a de-facto choice article for infusing herbs, as it is inert, non-reactive, sturdy, and its transparent nature allows you to judge the potency of the liquor by judging the depth of its hue. As a rule of thumb, always avoid vessels that are made of metal, regardless of how beautiful or whimsical they might be. Copper, bronze, tin, aluminum, iron, and even stainless steel all react with herbs and herbal compounds, often denaturing or changing the chemical constituents of some herbs - with possibly ruinous results. Metal vessels may affect an infusion's taste, efficiency, or potency, and may even change the chemical composition altogether, resulting in a potentially bad tasting or even harmful brew.
When using unglazed teapots, it should be noted that the clay absorbs some of the natural constituents of each infusion and is 'seasoned' overtime, so, where possible, actively ascribe one pot per herbal brew (if so desired), or opt not to. Either way, when used regularly, simple clay pots will take on a beautiful patina and aroma redolent of the herbs most commonly infused in it overtime which can be a very quaint and pleasurable nuance for some herbalists.
Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2013
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