While most people are familiar with the popular tea-brewing method of passively steeping a tea bag (or loose leaf tea) in a mug/pot of hot water, very few are familiar with herbal tea decoctions – a special type of tea brewing method which is very similar to, but also slightly different from an herbal tea infusion.
In this article, I’ll explain what an herbal tea decoction is, what makes it different from an infusion, which types of herbs & plant parts should be brewed as a tea decoction, and I’ll also teach you step-by-step how you can make this timeless, fundamental type of herbal brew.
Affiliate disclosure: This article contains affiliate links*. As a proud affiliate for Mountain Rose Herbs* and Starwest Botanicals*, I will make a small commission on qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you!
What’s a tea decoction?
In essence, a tea decoction is any type of herbal tea made by simmering the tougher plant parts of a medical herb (such as the roots, barks, rhizomes, seeds, nibs, etc.) in hot water, for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Wait… isn’t that the same thing as a tea infusion?
Spoiler alert: if you plan on just steeping herbal roots such as dandelion root, burdock, or ashwagandha as a tea infusion (i.e. you may have purhcased some dandelion root tea bags), you’re likely not going to get much of a clinical outcome. (Keep reading!)
Herbal decoctions vs infusions
At first glance, tea decoctions and tea infusions may appear to be one and the same: a cup of herbal tea that was brewed for about 20 minutes.
However, there are a few very important differences worth noting:
- The plant parts
- The brewing method
The plant parts
When making a tea infusion (by passively stepping the tea), this method works best for delicate plant parts such as leaves, stems, and flowers/flower petals.
Herbal decoctions, on the other hand, are a more aggressive method of extraction which is best when working with tougher plant parts such as:
What about mushrooms?
Adaptogenic mushrooms such as Reishi, lion’s mane, turkey tail, chaga, and cordyceps need extracted in two steps, with a decoction being the first step. This process is called a double extraction or “tincture infusion” method.
(More on mushroom double extractions here!)
Decoction vs infusion: brewing method
Simply put, to “decoct” is to simmer the herbs, while to “infuse” is to passively steep the herbs, in the context of brewing a traditional, medicinal herbal tea.
- Simmering / “decocting” (versus just steeping) flowers, flower petals, and leaves is unnecessarily harsh and could potentially even degrade their potency.
- On the other hand, an herbal tea decoction is the best way to extract the medicinal constituents contained within those tougher plant parts of certain herbs.
Which herbs are best for tea decoctions?
Each herb has its own unique characteristics and medicinal constituents. Not all parts of every plant are medicinal.
- In some cases (such as with dandelion / Taraxacum officinale), both the leaves and the roots of the plant are medicinal. It’s best practice to decoct the root, and to infuse the leaves/flowers.
- There are many other herbs in which just the leaves, and/or flowers, or just the roots, are the primary source of plant medicine.
The best types of herbs to be practically enjoyed as tea decoctions are generally those whose plant parts are tough (as mentioned above), and also:
- Demulcent / “mucilaginous”
The worst types of herbs to be decocted (versus made into a tincture, glycerite, capsule, or spagyric) are those which are:
- Aromatic (since the decoction is too harsh for aromatic constituents)
- Bitter (since it won’t taste good – so not very practical to drink as tea in therapeutic doses)
- Herbs with alkaloids as the primary medical constituent, such as milk thistle seed and chaste tree berries / “vitex” (since alkaloids need to be extracted in alcohol)
- Carminative (these constituents are extremely potent and can be easily extracted via infusion methods)
- Most types of herbal antimicrobials: very bitter-tasting and/or containing medicinal alkaloids, so best off taken as tinctures / capsules
Below is a list of some of the most popular herbs with medicinal plant parts that can make wonderful additions to an herbal tea decoction. 🙂
- Angelica root (Angelica archangelica)
- Ashwagandha root* (Withania somnifera)
- This is a bitter herb, but it blends great with chai herbs (such as in this Adaptogen Chai Tea!)
- Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus)
- Burdock root (Arctium lappa)
- Codonopsis root (Codonopsis pilosula)
- Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
- Dong Quai root (Angelica sinensis)
- Echinacea root (Echinacea angustifolia)
- Elecampane root (Inula helenium)
- Eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius)
- Kava kava root (Piper methysticum)
- Rhodiola root (Rhodiola rosea)
- Shatavari root (Asparagus racemosus)
- Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus)
- Note: A yellow dock tea decoction is very bitter, and not practical to drink as a tea. However, it’s great when incorporated into an herbal iron syrup.
What about marshmallow root?
One of my favorite herbal allies is marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), which is actually more medicinal when made into a cold water infusion (instead of a decoction).
This is one of the only exceptions, due to its high mucilaginous makeup.
- Buckthorn bark (Frangula alnus)
- Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus)
- Pao d’Arco bark (Tabebuia impetiginosa)
- Wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina)
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
- Cacao bean nibs (Theobroma cacao)
- Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)
- Amla / “Indian gooseberry” (Phyllanthus emblica)
- Elder berries (Sambucus nigra)
- Lycii berries / “gogi berries” (Lycium barbarum)
- Saw palmetto berries (Serenoa repens)
Fresh or dried herbs?
In most cases (with the exception of turmeric, which works well fresh in a golden milk recipe), herbs should be dried when making tea infusions or decoctions.
- This is because drying the plant will break down the plant’s cell walls, allowing us to more easily extract the special medicinal constituents contained within the herbs.
Does organic matter?
Yes! I don’t like extracting pesticides or herbicides into my plant medicine. I only purchase, work with, and recommend organic and/or wild-crafted, sustainably harvested, ethically sourced herbal products.
Where to buy herbs for decoctions
I’m a proud affiliate for several organic online apothecaries, specifically Mountain Rose Herbs* and Starwest Botanicals*.
I get most of of my dried herbs from those two apothecaries, but you can also grow your own herbal remedies and/or purchase them from another local or online organic, sustainable, ethically-sourced apothecary such as any of the following:
Decoctions in herbal medicine
Tea aside, herbal decoctions can also used for making other types of herbal preparations such as:
- Herbal hair wash
- Herbal sitz baths
- Herbal syrups
- Medicinal mushroom double extractions
- Topical wound care
- Herbal eye wash
How to make a tea decoction
- Sip or save
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried herb(s) of choice
- 16 to 24 ounces of water
- Combine herbs and water in a pot, and place on the stovetop over low heat.
- Cover and simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes (or about 15-30 minutes).
- The longer you simmer this tea, the more water will evaporate, and the more potent your decoction will become (for better or worse!).
- A longer decoction brewing time will also result in a stronger-tasting tea.
- Strain the tea using a fine sieve, clean cloth, or nut milk bag.
Sip, share, save, or repurpose
- This recipe will make about 2 to 3 servings of tea. You can sip on the tea right away, share it with loved ones, or save it for later!
- You can also repurpsoe your decocotion by making it into a syrup, or reserving it to use instead of water when making an oatmeal, soup, rice, or something else (if it goes well!).
How to make a tea decoction
- Measuring spoons and cups
- Medium pot for stovetop
- Sieve, nut milk bag or clean dish towel
- Mug(s) for sipping!
- 16-24 ounce Mason jar for storing in refrigerator (if applicable)
1 to 2 tablespoons of dried herb(s) of choice
16 to 24 ounces of filtered water or spring water
Combine herbs and water in a pot, and place on the stovetop over low heat.
Cover and simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes (or about 15-30 minutes).
Strain the tea using a fine sieve, clean cloth, or nut milk bag.
Sip, store, or repurpose!
How to store it
Just like tea infusions, a homemade tea decocotion will stay good in the refrigerator (in a sealed mason jar) for about 3 days.
If you’d like to learn more about herbal medicine, make sure to check out my herbal medicine blog archive and my favorite herbalism books!
XO – Jenna