Each summer I love to make infused herbal oils. Infused oils are a really good way of preserving the healing properties of herbs which will be used later in the year to make ointments or other external treatments. The properties of the finished oil will depend on the herbs that you have used. For example Chilli infused oil will be heating and stimulating, Lavender will be soothing and healing, Comfrey will be good to heal sprains and injuries, St John’s Wort has a particular affinity for inflamed nerve endings so is really good for post herpetic neuralgia (after shingles) and Mullein Flower infused oil is brilliant as an ear oil.
To make an infused oil all you need is lots of the fresh herb picked when it is absolutely dry on a hot sunny day, a kilner jar and plenty of oil. You can use any oil which contains good amounts of Vitamin E. I usually use olive oil but choose the mild version as it has a less pronounced smell. You can also use safflower oil, rapeseed oil and if you are feeling flush, almond oil or even jojoba oil. As safflower has specific properties against bruising I choose it when I am preparing infused oils to make my bruise ointment.
Generally in the summer you can make infused oils by packing the jar full of the herb, covering it with oil and leaving it on a sunny windowsill for three weeks. Make sure that no herb is sticking out above the level of the oil and that the jar is packed solid with herbs. Alternatively if you need your oil more quickly you can make it in a couple of hours by heating it gently in a double boiler or a slow cooker.
Once the oil is ready you strain it through a piece of clean muslin or a coffee filter in a colander. You can squeeze it out or press it, but don’t be too enthusiastic at this stage or you will end up with a cloudy oil. I tend to filter it again using a coffee filter as it is going into the clean dry bottles. Be warned it takes ages to go through the second filtering process so be prepared to leave it and get on with other jobs. It is worth the wait though as you will end up with a clearer brighter oil which will keep much better. The second filtering seems to remove the watery component of an oil made with fresh herbs. Once it is in the bottles make sure you label it and then store in a cool dark place.
My favourite infused oil is St John’s Wort because it visually demonstrates the wonderful alchemy of herbal medicine. You pick bright yellow flowers, add them to a jar with greeny olive oil and then watch in wonder as the whole thing takes on a gorgeous vibrant red colour. This is due to the release of the oil soluble medicinal ingredient, hypericin. You can see the oil glands in a St John’s Wort leaf if you hold it up to the light. You will see that the leaf seems to be full of pin pricks – hence its name Hypericum perforatum.
A word of caution though: it is important that infused oils made according to this method should ONLY be used externally. Fresh herbs, even when picked on a very dry day, contain water and therefore when covered in oil create ideal conditions for the growth of anaerobic bacteria. One of these is Clostridium botulinum which creates the botulism toxin when it grows. Whilst oils containing this are completely safe to use externally, small amounts are very dangerous when taken internally and there is no sign or taste that an oil is affected. If you really wanted to make infused oils as culinary ingredients there are ways of doing this safely, for example by only using dried herbs or by adding salt or vinegar to make the oil inhospitable to the growth of the bacteria. Alternatively you can refrigerate them and use them within three days.
Making infused oils is not only very easy it is a wonderful way to make the most of the abundance of summer and store herbs for use during the winter. These oils are a really good first aid treatment for burns, skin conditions, aching joints and injuries. They’re quick and convenient to use (compared to say a poultice) and very effective as the medicinal properties are absorbed through the skin over a wide area. Once you have made your infused oils you have the option of using some of them to make ointments at a later time. I make a lot of herbal ointments as these are convenient and ideal for small applications of herbs to specific areas – such as cuts or bites. I like to have a range of different ointments in my first aid kit and they are a popular component of my Herb Share parcels.
If you bottle your oils in clear glass bottles (and then store them out of direct sunlight) you can admire their beautiful colours as you take them out of the cupboard to use them. Alternatively you can just admire them like a set of gorgeous jewels!
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