~ Seasonal Digestive Tonics ~
While modern medicine is quite adept at removing a gall bladder, sometimes in only 15 minutes, there are many reasons to not only keep this essential body part but nourish it too. Do you know what it does? Yes, it's part of a dynamic system that helps us digest our food by storing bile for use when needed to break down fats. The process starts on the tongue where different compounds stimulate nerve impulses into the brain which then tell your liver, gall bladder and pancreas to make compounds needed to process the energy from your food. It's not easy for the body to make bile abundantly from the liver. So even if you have already had your gall bladder removed there is much you can do to support your liver that will have to make bile on demand since your storage organ is no longer with you. So what do we turn to? Bitters! Bitters is a fantastic, easy-to-make, and efficient dietary aid to keep us all being well and strong and vibrant.
Bitters has a long history of curing ailments of the GI tract and flavoring many kinds of drinks. This bitter component can be brought in on a food level and while definitely not a favorite flavor of many people's regular way of eating, there is a resurgence back to some of the older ways of simpler living that are just good for us. Bitters is part of this and has its place in the pantry and medicine cabinet of every home.
So What Are Bitters?
Bitters are simply bitter and aromatic herbs and spices infused (technical herbalist term is "tinctured") in liquor, for which I use a favorite French brandy. Combining various flavors is where your creativity can begin to flow. Anyone can just pack a jar with some Gentian root or Wormwood and vodka and have a fabulously bitter tincture that will do the job. I'm suggesting we add a few more plants to round out the flavor and action. Here's a few ideas and steps to making your own bitters at home which you can use in cocktails, drinks, cooking, and as a medicine when in need.
Don't Want The Alcohol?
If you're not drawn to alcohol based remedies, then make a syrup. There's directions for this simple process in my Root Beer Syrup recipe. This is so delicious in seltzer or warm water or right off the spoon.
Bitters are comprised of bitter-tasting roots, barks, or leaves, plus other plants that provide aroma and flavor and medicinal properties that aid digestion, liver and gall bladder function. In general you should use whole ingredients rather than ground dried herbs, as they're easier to strain out in the end and the plants hold their medicine longer when stored dry in larger pieces. You can chop ingredients up or coarsely crack them to expose more surface area for infusing. Sometimes I rough grind them with a few pulses in my dedicated herb (coffee) grinder.
Bitter agents usually make up 60% of the blends. I include plants like Angelica root, Barberry root, Black Walnut leaf, Burdock root, Calamus root, Citrus peels of Orange, Lime, Grapefruit or Lemon (if using fresh, keep them organic and include the white pith region when peeling), Dandelion root and leaf, Elecampane root, Feverfew, Gentian root, Horehound, Mugwort, Oregon grape root, Quassia bark/Cinnamon, Sarsaparilla, and Wormwood.
Aromatics for flavor and digestive fire make up the rest of the formula. I love rounding out the bitters flavor by including other herbs, spices, flowers, fruits, or nuts that offer digestive aid. Use your imagination. Also use organic ingredients when possible, especially when it comes to fruit peels. Some examples:
- Spices - allspice, aniseed, caraway, cardamom, celery seed, chiles, cloves, coriander, fennel, ginger, juniper berries, nutmeg, peppercorns, star anise, vanilla beans
- Herbs & Flowers - chamomile, hibiscus, hops, lavender, lemongrass, peppermint, rose, rosemary, sage, thyme, yarrow, roasted chicory or dandelion roots
- Fruits - fresh or dried citrus peel such as lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit; dried fruit such as apples, cranberries, cherries, figs, raisins
- Beans - cacao beans or nibs, coffee beans
What Alcohol To Use?
For maximum flavor extraction and preservation, use 80-100 proof or 50% alcohol. You'll get the least interruption of flavor using grain alcohol, such as Everclear, or vodka. You can also experiment with other liquors such as bourbon, brandy, gin, and rum. These add their own unique flavor as well. I do like each of these latter ones and rarely use Everclear or vodka. You decide.
In addition, bitters may be slightly sweetened with molasses, honey, or maple syrup. I use very little but a touch can really round out the flavor.
There are two main ways to make bitters. One method is to combine all of your plants and infuse them in the liquor together. This is the easiest and the one I use. I like making a smaller batch and using it up while I make a new batch of maybe an already perfected recipe or a new inspiration. I describe this method below.
The other method is to make a separate tincture of each plant and when finished you can strain and then blend them to taste. Some like this way because different ingredients infuse at different rates. Tincturing them separately also gives you more control over the outcome. This one takes more jars and blending time. You will follow the directions below but tincture each plant separately, strain and store separately before blending. Again, you decide.
How Long To Infuse?
I keep these at least 6 weeks and shake daily before I taste and decide if they need more time. They need to taste bitter! To smell, put a couple drops of the infusion in your palms, rub them together, and hold your hands up to your nose while inhaling. To taste, put a couple drops in a glass of water and sip. If you taste it straight, remember it will be really intensely bitter that you may miss the more subtle flavors. Sip in water and swirl over your tongue is my suggestion.
Elecampane, Dandelion & Orange Bitters:
3 TLB Elecampane root dried
3 TLB Dandelion Root dried
1 TLB Roasted Chicory root
1 TLB Black Pepper course cracked
1 Vanilla pod sliced length wise and then chopped small
1 Cinnamon stick broken up
1 Organic Orange sliced thin zest and all, seeds too.
1 Quart Liquor of choice (at least 80-100 proof or higher) - Brandy is good to start with
- Place plants in your jar: You may wish to chop up or crack ingredients to expose more surface area for better and faster infusion.
- Cover with liquor: Add liquor to your jar, making sure the plants are completely submerged. Cap tightly.
- Label: Don't forget to label the jar with the contents and date. It's a good idea to write down the measurements you used, either on the label or in separate notes.
- Shake the jars once a day: Give the jar a good shake once a day for 6 weeks or more.
- Testing Potency: Regularly smell and sample your tincture. It'll be ready when it strongly smells and tastes of the individual ingredients. To smell, put a couple drops of the infusion in your palms, rub them together, and hold your hands over nose and inhale. To taste, put a couple of drops in a glass of water — you can taste it straight but I feel the body receives this better diluted and then swirling over your tongue.
- Strain: When ready, strain out the solids. For finer straining, I use a coffee filter or 4 layers of cheese cloth and strain into a measuring cup for easy pouring into your bottles.
- Bottle & Label: How about a hip name and great label for your creation and gifting this out during the holidays? These last for years.
- Dosing & Enjoying: 1/2 tsp in water is considered a dose if you're experiencing indigestion- take before a rich meal to get things moving if you can! As a seasonal tonic take 1/2 tsp 2x/day at spring and fall equinox for 2-3 weeks. Active gall bladder issues may be supported with Biiters but it's wise to get diagnosed before just treating for this. Seek medical attention for acute painful symptoms to rule out life threatening blockages.
- Traveling: Bitters is a great travel remedy for keeping the GI Tract strong during the strain of travel and food changes and questionable water quality. With this in mind, make it good and BITTER by increasing the bitter component a bit. Add an extra TLB or 2 of the Elecampane and Dandelion Root. You can also add 1-2 TLB Gentian Root to really kick up the bitter component. Take ¼ - ½ tsp each day while traveling and more if you experience active, or sluggish digestive issues on the road.
So make a Bitters tincture! Bottle up for gifts too. We make it a regular practice to slow way down for the high holy days ahead. It's easier to go ahead and over indulge a bit that way. It's fun and necessary in life a bit too. Bitters will suppport your body deeply through it all. This is an ancient remedy that holds its ground as a strong supportive healer to have around as a regular in your home apothecary. Enjoy XO-Jen
Interested in deepening your study of the medicine plants?
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