Monday, July 20, 2009

Make and Use Herbal Oils

Herbal oils fall into three primary categories.

Culinary Oils
Medicinal Oils
Massage/Bath Oils.

The main difference between the three is the type of base oil used. I suggest, in all three cases that you use the best quality oil that will fit into your budget. This is not necessarily an area where you want to skimp. You will use many of these oils a few drops at a time, and so a bottle of oil should last quite a long time. Buying a lower quality oil, that goes rancid or cloudy before you can use it all is not thrifty or frugal. If you want to save money, I suggest making smaller batches, so you can get multiple varieties from one oil purchase.

For Culinary Oils, I recommend using a cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. This is an oil that is relatively healthy, will accept the flavor of the herbs well, as it does not have a strong competing flavor, and, if you get a high quality oil, should last almost indefinitely. (I said almost).

For Medicinal Oils, I also suggest Olive Oil, but you can get away with a less expensive grade here. Virgin Olive Oil would work fine. I would avoid using Pure Olive Oil.

(Note, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Virgin Olive Oil are both made using a chemical free process. EVOO has a slightly lower acid content, and a more pure taste. Pure Olive Oil is generally a blend of Virgin Olive Oil and Refined Olive Oils, made with a chemical process intended to improve the taste and hide the acidity.)

The purpose of medicinal oils is not taste, it is function. Also, in Medicinal purposes, you will often just be using a few drops, so taste of the base oil will not be as big an issue as it would if you were making salad dressing. I would still stay with a quality that you can trust though

For Massage Oils or Bath Oils, I recommend using Grapeseed Oil, as it is relatively odorless and is absorbed by the skin quickly and easily.

Once you have your base oil, the process is the same for all three types of oil.

You can make Cold Infused Oils, or Hot infused Oils. Heat releases the oils in the herbs. Heat also will begin the natural process of breaking those oils down, (Hint, that’s why they release, they start to break away), so there are many people who believe that one should never apply any type of heat while infusing oils. I think this is a personal call. Heat infused oils are a bit stronger generally, but may not remains strong as long. Cold infused oils, as a general rule are not as strong, but the essence will last longer.
Cold infused oils take longer to make. Hot infused oils are faster.

Whether making hot or cold infusions, You can use fresh or dried herbs. But your herbs, if fresh must be clean and dry. If there is moisture left on the herbs, it will make your oil cloudy.

Pick your herbs in the late morning, after the dew has dried, but before the afternoon sun has started to warm the leaves. This is when they are at their peak flavor. Place them in a warm dry dark place for at least several hours, and preferably overnight. Then you are ready.

Just a note. You can infuse practically any herbs you grow, but it is best to avoid Garlic. Garlic oils will become cloudy very quickly, and Garlic, for whatever reason is very attractive to Clostridium Botulinum, the bacteria better known as botulism. Even Alton Brown buys his Garlic Oil, although he makes all his others.

Cold Infusion Method:

Choose a jar with straight sides and a wide mouth to infuse oils, you can pour it into a fancy decorative bottle later. Trust me, the first time you have to fish the old herbs out of a fancy bottle with a skinny opening so you can reuse the bottle you will wish you had followed this advice.

Canning jars work well, and come in a variety of sizes, so you can use whichever size matches the amount of oil you want to infuse.

Fill the jar you have chosen, with enough herbs, packed firm, but not tightly, to reach 3” from the top of the jar.
Add oil to cover the herbs, plus 2”.

When using fresh herbs, it is very important. Let me Reiterate VERY IMPORTANT, that the oil completely cover all of the herb. There should not be any stems, leaves, sprigs, tendrils, or other parts or pieces sticking out of the oil.

Don’t say, Oh, a little tiny corner of a leaf won’t matter. It will!. Any greenery that sticks out of the oil will promote mold growth, and once the mold appears in the jar, the entire bottle of oil will be ruined! You are trying to impart a flavor to the oil, the last flavor you want to impart is the delicate flavor of mold.

Ok, I hope I made my point very clearly there.

Now, let the jar sit in the sun, or in a greenhouse, for six to eight weeks.

Your oil is now done. You have some options. To preserve the flavor, the oil should now be protected from light. You can pour it off into a dark clean airtight jar, or you can put it into a dark place until you are ready to use it. If you do that, feel free to leave the herb in the oil until that time. Just remember, as soon as you use some of the oil, you need to take out the herb, lest some of it poke above the oil, see above….

Personally, I recommend removing the oil at this point to a different container.

Don’t be surprised if the oil doesn’t smell very strongly of the herb. It often won’t, as cold oils tend to hold to their aromas jealously. But the taste should still be there.

For a stronger oil, repeat the process with fresh herbs. The more times you do this, the stronger it will be.

Hot Infusion Method

Word of caution before we start. Avoid high heat. High heat will destroy the oil that you are trying to collect. You don’t want to boil your herbs in oil, you just want to coax the natural oils out of them.

Place the herbs in a non reactive pot. Glass, stainless, etc. Avoid, if possible Teflon, and definitely avoid copper or aluminum. Although copper is an essential mineral, we aren’t trying to infuse copper oil. At least not on this project.

This is one of those, “Use the pot to fit the project” challenges. If you are making 4 ounces of Skunkweed oil, use a smaller pot than if you want 3 gallons of Peppermint oil.

You will cover the herb with oil, and apply low slow heat for three hours. This can be done in a double boiler, or a crock pot. If you use a double boiler, keep it at a low heat, barely boiling, not a rolling frolicking boil. If you use a crock pot, us the lowest setting.

Allow the oil to cool completely and strain out the herbs. Store in an airtight container, in a dry cool place.

Like with cold infusion, you can repeat the process as many times as you like until the oil is as strong as you want it.

Ok, now you have shelves and racks of various oils, all made up and you don’t know what to do with them?

Which ones do you use for what?

Well, If you read my “All About Herbs” feature every week, you will get a few ideas. Remember, they are your herbs and your oils. You can use them however you want. You can put Oregano on your Ice Cream, and Lemon Verbena on your Manicotti if you want. Do what you want, try different things, and use them the way they make you and your family happy.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Tarragon and Lavender don’t go together.

But here are some ideas to get you started thinking:

You can add a couple of drops of lavender oil to soap, cleaners, and oil diffusers to keep your home fresh. Lavender has strong antiseptic qualities, which make it a good basic household oil. In aromatherapy, use lavender oil for its calming qualities.

Lemon aroma oil clears the head and the spirits. It is delightfully refreshing in hot, dull weather, and when a house has been closed up for a long time. In the same way, it will revive anyone who is feeling sluggish and run down. (This can be made from Lemon scentede herbs, or from Lemon Zest, if you have the patience and energy to sit and grate the zest…)

Patchouli oil reached the height of popularity in the 70s, and today it is still a commonly used oil for setting a passionate mood. Patchouli oil also makes a luxurious and sensuous massage oil. Be sure the oil you use has been diluted properly before using it on the skin.

Rose oil is one of the most popular oils for its delicate fragrance and uplifting effect on the senses. To set a romantic mood, use rose scented candles around the room, then use rose aroma oil with a couple tablespoons of water in an oil diffuser.

Use sage oil in a diffuser, or a few drops on a cotton ball near your work area when you are under pressure or suffering stress.

Eucalyptus or peppermint oil is valuable for colds and flu. The best way to use these oils is in a vaporizer to help breathing difficulties.

Add a dozen or so drops of whichever oil you choose, to a squeeze bottle of warm water and rinse your hair after you shampoo and condition, for a clean fresh smell.

Read the “All About Herbs” feature weekly for different uses of different herbs.

Feel free to add your own suggestion and the way you use herbs or oils in the comments below.


  1. I think I'll make some lavender oil. My husband always keeps some on his desk. Says it relieves his stress. I think the cold infusion method is the way to go. Do you use both the leaves and blossoms, or just the blossoms?

  2. Hi Jane, and thanks for your comment.

    First of all, it is important to note that there is a differenvce between "Lavender Oil" and "Essential Oil Of Lavender". You can make Lavender oil very easily, Essential Oil of Lavender is distilled, expensive, and requires bushels of lavender to make a bottle of oil.

    But you can make lavender oil, using either hot or cold infusion that will have the same properties, although not as strong.

    The most fragrance, and therefore the strongest oil, is in the flowers, or buds, but the stems contain some essential oil as well. If you have enough flowers to fill your vessel, I would just use those, but if you have room in the vessel, once the flowers are in, feel free to add some stems.

    The stems will help keep the flowers from floating to the top of the oil, and we all know how important it is that no plant stick out of the oil.

    If you are just using flowers, you may want to find a way to weigh them down, a glass plate or something on top of them, so they don't float to the top.

    Good luck, and let me know how it turns out.


  3. Thanks! I'll have to see if I have enough lavender. I don't want to make much. This past winter was pretty hard on the plants.