Oil Infusions - Part 1

Making oil infusions is quite similar to making alcoholic tinctures, and much like that sister topic, it has a simple central precept, but several complications regarding the fine detail of the deed. And, much like alcoholic tinctures, oil infusions are a very valuable resource and a good way of preserving herbs and extracting their properties, as well as improving your cooking and craft.

Theoretical considerations:

  • Choosing herbs

As with all herbalist techniques, one should always start with knowing what one is doing. Ask yourself, why are you making it? What will the purpose be? Oil infusions are a great way to preserve aromatic herbs, the scent and taste of which could be smothered by ethanol; they are great cosmetics, for example as skin lotions for regular, prolonged use, as conditioners or for massages; they can be used as medicine. But even the cleanest oil infusion of the best healing herbs is not a good thing to apply to an open wound, where disinfectant is most needed (while oil will nourish bacteria and encourage them to breed), or as cure for dandruff, where it will be much less effective.
So before you make oil infusions, think well about what is it that you're actually trying to achieve. (In fact, "do this before engaging in any activity whatsoever" would be my general advice.)
Some herbs (both culinary and medicinal) which are good material for oil infusions:
  • Basil
  • Blackseed
  • Cinnamon
  • Chamomile
  • Garlic
  • Juniper
  • Lavender
  • Laurel leaf
  • Lemonbalm
  • Marigold
  • Majoram
  • Pepper (various kinds)
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
Of course, the fact that a herb is suitable for an oil infusion does not make it unsuitable for other herbalist methods. The time it will take your oil to infuse depends on the material used: fresh, soft leaves, like basil or lemonbalm, will unlock (so to speak) their properties faster than dried leaves of the same plant, or than tough leaves like laurel, juniper or rosemary, and much faster than seeds or dried fruit (like pepper).
  • Choosing oil

Choosing the right oil is also something that can be very simple, but can spring complications up on you. If you're preparing an infusion for culinary use, then the taste will be the most important factor, but for medicinal or cosmetic use the oil's properties, as well as, for example, possible allergic reactions, will be much more important. And within each of these broad categories are a number of sub-set circumstances, such as, for instance, whether the oil will be used as cold condiment or for high-temperature frying, for which certain types are less suitable. Not to mention that certain flavors of oils and herbs go hand in hand (basil and olive oil) while others (cinnamon and olive oil) not so much.
Good versatile oils include:
  • Grapeseed oil - high in linoleic acid and with a sensibly-high smoking point of 216 C, it's a good choice for both cosmetics and kitchen. Practically tasteless and odorless, it works with most herbs and uses.
  • Olive oil - this is, in my opinion, the greatest oil that has ever been. I love its taste, its smell, its properties. Still, when it comes to oil infusions it can actually take second place to grapeseed: the strong innate aroma of olive oil can make it unsuitable for some "sweet" spices like anise, cinnamon or nutmeg, and its considerably lower smoking point (190 C) for such tasks as stir-frying. However, it's still the best for most dishes, and for most cosmetic and medicinal purposes: it's great for skincare (except possibly in cases of atopic dermatitis) and can improve cardiovascular health.
  • Rice oil - tasteless, odorless, very high smoking point, clear color lets you see what's going on. Depending on the country, it can get rather expensive, though.
SAFETY NOTE: there are many witchy recipes on the web that recommend exposing an oil infusion to the sun, to naturally heat it up and thus speed up the infusion process. While this idea feels appropriately pagan, and heat can indeed hasten the process, most oils are known to rapidly deteriorate in direct sunlight, and this practice can ruin the whole thing and be quite hazardous to your health, too. DO NOT DO THIS.