By Susan Staley
Sometimes the best thing to do is make yourself a cup of tea. Winter's deep slumber, combined with the peculiar and challenging nature of the season this year, call for moments of soothing restoration and connection. We encourage you to make you and your loved ones some tea. Anytime of day. When it comes to tea brewing you can be as simple and quick as a tea bag or as slow and steady as a decoction.
Today we want to remind you of, or perhaps introduce you to, the sourdough of the tea world- the decoction. We say its the sourdough of the tea world because with the need to stay at home these days many people have taken up slower preparations and methods of cooking than are possible when one is away from their kitchen all day. Decoctions lend themselves to the parts of the plant that are dense and compact- namely roots, berries, bark, and yummy spices. Medicinal mushrooms also require a decoction to extract the medicinal components of the fungi.
Now, a decoction doesn't have to take as long as a slow sourdough fermentation process- although it can. Essentially, a decoction is when heat is applied to the herbs and water over time instead of pouring boiled water over herbs to make a classic infusion. Decoctions are often done in a pot on the stove, over low heat, with a lid slightly ajar, over a period of 15min- 3 hour (or more). This preparation can also be done in a crock-pot, and is not dissimilar to making a stock.
The lid is left ajar to prevent rapid evaporation, to conserve heat, and to keep aromatic plant constituents in the tea as much as possible without building over. We also like the method of doing a quick decoction (15-30min), and then adding more water and continuing the process. Just be sure to keep an eye on your pot, and to start with more water than you want for tea. It is an unhappy account (and dangerous) to find a pot with only herbs and all the water evaporated. Bring water to a soft boil then reduce to the lowest heat on your stovetop.
A classic decoction is a "chai"- ginger, cardamom, black pepper and black tea (added at the end). Any decoction can become "chai-like" with the addition of aromatic warming herbs like those mentioned above as well as cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, clove, star anise, coriander, and fennel.
In addition to the spices above, we find the following herbs make great healing and tasty decoctions. They are, ashwagandha root, shatavari root, burdock, dandelion root, hawthorn berry, schisandra berry (tart!), licorice root, reishi mushroom, eleuthero root, astragalus root, and elderberry. Use your imagination and follow your instincts.
After you're finishing decocting and turned off the heat, you can also add the more delicate parts of the plant (leaves, buds, flowers, stems), cover, and let infuse into your tea. This is a great way to combine into one pot the herbs that benefit from some time over the heat with the herbs that simply require some time to infuse in hot water. Lastly, you can add more water if you find the decoction too strong, or conversely, continue to reduce if you find the cup too weak.
Quick Adaptogn Chai Recipe:
Simmer the above herbs in 1.5 c of water for 20-30min as directed above. Strain and prepare with milk and honey as desired. You can also sprinkle with additional cinnamon or cardamom before serving.
Susan Staley is a clinical and community herbalist and staff member with Railyard Apothecary. She deeply values those herbs and plants commonly available in most grocery stores, and the where the edge blurs between food and medicine. She works with individuals with a variety of health goals including immune, digestive, and mood support. You can schedule a conversation with her or other members of Burlington Herb Clinic here.
Check in here to keep updated on news and activities at the apothecary.