Yarb Tales - Herbal Oils
December 23, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Herbed oils, when safely made, labeled, stored and consumed in a timely manner, are delicious additions to many home-cooked dishes and can also be used in body care products. First, obtain small quantities of high-quality seed and nut oils. Oils become rancid because of oxidation without artificial preservatives. There is no sense in wasting good money on large bottles, which cannot be used quickly enough. Oils should be cold or expeller-pressed, preferably organic; you shouldn’t put any oil on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your body. Many folks change to higher quality oils after researching how most commercial cooking oils are processed.

Dried herbs, grown and harvested during the current growing season are the best to use for making oils for body care products. Old dried herbs from previous years are of a lower quality because the essential oils in the leaves are volatile and do evaporate and breakdown over time. Fresh cut, green herbs can be macerated in warm oil for cooking or external use, if used immediately.

Herbal oils for human consumption should be made right before the meal and consumed within a week. Botulism (Clostridium botulinum) spores are present in the soil and are found on garden produce; they can’t be washed off. When peppers, herbs, or garlic are infused in oil, the spores have a perfect environment for growth. The organism multiplies in the absence of oxygen and that metabolism produces a toxin, which causes extreme neurological damage when ingested. Even in the refrigerator, the spores can reproduce. Leftover oil should be kept in the refrigerator and discarded after 10 days.

If you are like me, eating leftovers before they go bad is hit and miss at best.  Please practice these safety measures. Botulism poisoning can kill the people it infects, especially small children and elders.  Those who are infected display symptoms from six to thirty-six hours after ingesting contaminated food.  Symptoms include blurred and double vision, vertigo, dizziness, muscle weakness, headache, dry mouth, slurred speech, and trouble breathing.  As the disease progresses paralysis of the arms, legs, and respiratory system may result. Don’t be afraid; just practice good food safety.

Homemade herbed oils may not make the safest gifts. If herbed oils are given, also present the facts about food safety. Commercial herbed oils are processed to kill the botulism spores, but should still be handled with care and consumed quickly after opening.

Oils for human consumption (sometimes referred to as “fixed oils”) are best when cold pressed and unprocessed. Olive oil, almond oil or walnut oil can be used to make ointments and gourmet herbed oils. If the oil is to be heated, olive oil, peanut oil or coconut oil are the best choices. Heating nut oils destroys beneficial fatty acids.

Coconut oil is also called coconut butter. Cold-pressed, unrefined coconut butter is high in saturated fats which makes it stable when heated to high temperatures. It contains the anti-bacterial and anti-viral compound, lauric acid that is found in human breast milk. Coconut oil is very fatty—it is lubricating, not moisturizing—it is great for dry skin, but not for oily skin. Store at room temperature in a cool place, out of direct light.

Grape seed oil is high in Omega 3 fatty acids however, according to Rebecca Woods, in The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia, we should only use grape seed oil that was expressed from organically grown grapes. Chemical toxins from insecticides and fungicides concentrate in the fatty acids of plants.

Jojoba beans are pressed to extract their oil, producing a fine-quality oil used in skincare products. It is rich and expensive. No more than 10% jojoba oil should be used in the total volume of a formula.

Many herbs freeze well when chopped with a little oil. This method is good for preserving herb pastes for cooking (i.e.: pesto or salsa verde). To make an oil concentrate, blend 2 cups firmly packed fresh leaves and tender stem tips of marjoram, basil, dill, cilantro lemon balm or mints in 1/2 cup oil in a food processor. Alternatively, instead of making a pesto, the leaves and stems of any of these herbs can be coated with a little vegetable oil—be sure to cover them with the oil—and frozen so that you will have them when they are out-of-season to add to baked goods. Oil-frozen herbs are best stored in tightly-closed, half-cup to cup-sized containers. These herbs in oil must be kept in the freezer; do not keep them in the refrigerator because of the danger of botulism. Frozen herbed oils will keep at least one year.

Much of this information is excerpted from the creative herbal home by Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!