Herbal Syrups offer powerful and concentrated medicine and nutrition. Syrups are concentrated infusions ordecoctions of herbs in a food-like medium, such as molasses, honey, vinegar and honey, black cherry concentrate. Syrups can be taken in a tonic fashion for their nutritive and preventative qualities in doses of 1-2 Tablespoons a day. When taken with food, you optimize your assimilation of herbal nutrients. Or syrups can be taken as needed for specific complaints. Syrups are pleasant to take, which can make them especially useful for children. Syrups store well; if you refrigerate your syrups you can expect them to last for months!
When you begin making herbal syrups you may want to work with a recipe. However, as you become experienced you will quickly see that making herbal syrups is like cooking—once you know the basic techniques you are limited only by your own imagination. The wide variety of sweeteners available and hundreds of nutritive and medicinal plants allow for infinite possibilities with herbal syrups.
Elements of a Syrup
Herbs: Any plant parts may be used. Blossoms and berries are very commonly used due to the lovely and sweet flavor, but roots, leaves, barks and seeds may also be used. Using harder material like roots, barks and hard fruits like Hawthorn and Rosehips require longer cooking or a longer decoction method.
Don’t get hung up on how much herbal material to use. Recipes tend to vary widely. In general you need lessherb to water if you are using roots, barks and berries. You should use more herbal material to water if using blossoms or leafy material. When I’m making an herbal syrup from my imagination (instead of a recipe) I frequently make a really strong herbal infusion by using anywhere from 1- 3 ounces of fresh plant material to one quart of water. If your syrup isn’t strong enough you can always reduce it further by simmering, or if it’s too strong you can add a bit more water.
Fresh vs. Dried Herbs:
In general fresh is usually better. Fresh plants contain more volatile oils, more vitamins etc. When substituting dried for fresh, as in cooking, the general guideline is It is fine to combine fresh and dried herbs.
3 parts fresh=1 part dried
e.g. 1 teaspoon dried Ginger or 1 Tablespoon fresh Ginger
e.g. ½ oz dried Raspberry Leaf or 1 ½ oz fresh Raspberry Leaf
Water: water plays the role of menstrum, drawing nutrition and phytochemicals from the plants and pulling them in solution.
Sweeteners make syrup taste good but they are also an essential preservative. Syrups are not a low-sugar preparation—you need a lot of sweetener for good longevity. Without a sweetener you just have a tea and that lasts in the fridge for less than a week.
Honey—taste can be very mild to quite strong, anti-microbial, soothing, astringent, high quality honey can be expensive,
Sugar—lets the flavor of the herbs through clearly, very inexpensive
Maple Syrup—mild, pleasant flavor, extremely high in calcium, somewhat expensive, appropriate for syrups intended for infants,m the water content of maple syrup makes this a less potent preservative
Glycerin—found at most co-ops, strongly preservative, allows flavor of the herbs to come through clearly, more expensive
Corn Syrup—readily available, allows flavor of herbs to come through clearly, very inexpensive
Black Cherry Concentrate—iron-rich, rich delicious flavor, strong flavor that masks unpleasant infusions, available at most co-ops, somewhat expensive
Molassess—iron-rich, strong flavor, readily available, inexpensive
Adding some alcohol to your syrup will greatly extend the shelf life. Brandy is an easy choice. It’s slightly sweet, grape-like and inexpensive. You can play around with other types of alcohol as well, like spiced rum. I had fun this year making an elixir with infused sumac honey, cardamom and St. Germaine, an elderflower liqueur. The St. Germaine added a wonderful floral note and (arguably) the medicinal properties of elderblossoms. You can use as much or as little alcohol as you like. The more you add, the more your syrup comes to resemble what we would call a cordial, but it may be less palatable and appropriate for little children. I find that about 1/3 cup of alcohol per batch of syrup that is made from about 3 cups of water and 1 cup of sweetener to be just right for offering some preservative powers while keeping the alcohol content low.
Supplemental Ingredients (optional): choose ingredients that complement your recipe or your wellness/healing goals
Spices: cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom etc.
Dulse, Kelp, other sea vegetables
Due to the high water content of most syrups they should be refrigerated. Garlic syrups, or syrups with a high proportion of alcohol or vinegar however, require no refrigeration.
Methods for Syrup Making
1. Create a strong tea by decocting or infusing the herbs:
A strong tea is the basis of your syrup. This can be accomplished by long slow simmering (infusion), a method which works well for things such as Elderberries, other berries and fruits or leafy material. With roots and barks you can pour boiling water over the herbal material and set aside overnight (decoction). In the morning you can drain the decoction from the herbs and add the liquid to the pot and proceed. Alternatively you can gently simmer hard herbal material for a longer time.
2. Reduce volume:
After you have strained and discarded the herbal material you will simmer the infusion/decoction and concentrate the mixture as desired.
3. Add sweetener and supplemental ingredients:
cook gently until well combined. Simmer for a longer time to reduce volume if desired.
4. When cool, add alcohol if desired.
5. Bottle and refrigerate
Alternatives Syrup Making Methods:
Some herbal preparations that are syrup-like can be made by infusing herbs in vinegar and water and then adding sweeteners. These types of syrups do not need to be cooked or refrigerated. Fire or Cyclone Cider type preparations are a good example of this.
No-Heat Blossom and Sugar Syrups
You can make delightful, fragrant blossom syrups by packing fresh blossoms into a clean jar and pouring white sugar over the blossoms. Mix them well and leave the sugar-blossoms to sit. Within a few hours you will have a shimmering, fragrant, concentrated syrup that you can strain out. This method produces very little syrup per the amount of blossoms you use, but the syrup is amazingly fragrant. Delicate volatile oils are easily damaged in cooking and they are extracted without heat in this type of preparation. Sometimes I use this type of syrup as an addition to other syrups. For instance, I make a Linden blossom infusion with water on the stove-top and some no-cook linden and sugar syrup. I add this no-cook white sugar syrup to my infusion to create a more strongly fragrant Linden Syrup.
Elixirs and Infused Honey Syrups
Elixirs are increasingly popular in the herbal medicine world. These preparations can vary widely from a tincture with honey added to a much more traditionally syrupy preparation. Many medicine makers infuse all elixir ingredients including multiple herbs, honey and alcohol in one jar. The word is so cool and magical sounding, what medicine maker doesn’t want to make and dispense elixirs?
I like to make my elixirs by infusing fresh herbs in raw honey and glycerin. The raw honey is so thick I like adding the glycerin to make a slightly runnier product. Sometimes I gently simmer the jar of herb/honey/glycerin in a water bath, when I feeling impatient. Sometimes I let the whole jar just infuse slowly over a period of weeks at room temperature. Whichever method I chose, eventually I strain out the plant material. This herbal honey can be used as is, but I like to add a little alcohol to thin the consistency a bit more and cut the sweetness and sometimes other ingredients like lemon juice. I like my elixirs runny enough that I can pour them into a dropper bottle and dispense with a dropper.