Hobbies & Crafts

Getting Greasy: A Beginner’s Guide to Infusing Oils

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Ready to get your hands dirty this winter?

Infusing oils is a constructive and joyful activity that adds a bit of sunshine back into gray days.

It opens the door for learning and creativity through a practical lens, letting you enjoy life’s finer flavors without paying the luxury price tag. You can use your infusions as a base for all sorts of products, from pain-relieving salves to gingivitis-fighting toothpaste and more.

Once you learn how to make oil infusions at home, the sky’s the limit. You’ll discover a whole new world of self-sufficiency, cutting costs like a boss by making everyday items yourself, and walking on the wilder side of DIY.

Stepping Up Self-Sufficiency with Oil Infusions

People have been infusing oils for thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptians were among the first to record the craft, beginning as far back as 4500 BC. They incorporated oil infusions in all sorts of things, the most interesting of which include embalming ingredients for mummification and send-off gifts for the afterlife.

Long before aromatherapy became a hot Western trend, Greeks and Romans steeped herbs to create delightful massage oils and breathable medicines. Japanese and Chinese practitioners employed these aromatic extractions in holistic healing, while English royalty used them to mask the uncouth scents of the Victorian era.

Nowadays, most homesteaders are (hopefully) not infusing oils to perfect DIY embalming techniques. However, we’ve still got plenty of uncouth scents to mask. And even if your homestead smells like a freshly turned room at the Ritz, there are many other reasons to start infusing oils. Here are a few:

  • Use up excess garden waste, foraged food, or kitchen scraps
  • Preserve seasonal flavors
  • Make your own natural medicines, cosmetics, and household products
  • Save money on products you would otherwise buy
  • Get the family together for a fun group activity

Learning how to make oil infusions at home combines core tenets of self-sufficiency with inspiring and imaginative practices, connecting us to our roots, our principles, and our families.

Back to the Basics

So, how does it work? Plants are rich in beneficial compounds, many of which are not immediately bioavailable. However, we can use oil as a solvent to break down plants’ cell walls and draw out those compounds. Once extracted, they become more accessible, and our bodies can absorb and use them.

These compounds can be medicinal, like in the case of antiviral cloves or fever-reducing eucalyptus. They can be cosmetic, like skin-soothing strawberries and astringent thyme. They can also be flavorful, like lemon’s tangy citric acid or garlic’s pungent allicin.

How to Make Oil Infusions at Home

Interestingly, we use almost the same processes for infusing oils that the ancients did. There are two methods suitable for homesteaders, each with advantages.

Cold Infusions

Infusing oils via the cold method is my preference and probably the best method for beginners. It is more straightforward and forgiving than the hot method, but infusions take much longer.

Cold infusions are best for:

  • Mucilaginous plants like mullein, mallow, and slippery elm
  • Volatile plant oils found in leaves and flowers
  • Mineral-rich material like nettle and seeds

You’ll need: A mason jar, a sterilized glass storage container, a carrier oil, and plant matter.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Chop or crush plant matter. Breaking it down exposes more of its surface area to the oil, enabling a more thorough extraction.
  2. Place plant matter inside the jar, filling it about ¾ of the way. The plants will swell up as they become saturated, so leaving this extra space will ensure they have room to stretch beneath the oil.
  3. Fill the jar with oil, ensuring plants are fully submerged.
  4. Put the lid on the jar and leave it in a cool, dark place to infuse. Infusions take two to eight weeks, depending on your desired flavor and application.
  5. Every day, remove the jar from its hidey-hole and shake it. Like crushing, shaking exposes more surface area to the oil and makes a more complete infusion.
  6. Once you’re happy with the scent and flavor, strain the plant matter out of the oil. You can use a cheesecloth or a dedicated small-particle strainer.
  7. Bottle the oil in a sterilized glass storage container.
  8. Label, date, and store your infusion in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use it.
Hot Infusions

Infusing oils via the hot method can work exceptionally well during a time crunch since you only need a few hours. However, applying heat can be risky. Temperatures above 130°F can destroy medicinal compounds and degrade flavoring agents. The solution is to be very careful and monitor your temperatures closely.

Hot infusions are best for:

  • Tough mushrooms like reishi and wood ear
  • Extracting plant resins
  • Melting solid carrier oils, like coconut

You’ll need: A double-boiler, a thermometer, a sterilized glass storage container, a carrier oil, and plant matter.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Chop or crush plant matter.
  2. Put your double-boiler on a low heat setting.
  3. Place plant matter inside the double-boiler and fill it with your carrier oil. Make sure all plant matter is completely submerged. If it floats, push it down with a spoon.
  4. Use your thermometer to measure the temperature of the oil. Adjust the heat accordingly so that it never exceeds 130°F. If you are familiar with the plant you’re using, you might know more about its specific compounds and determine that a different temperature is better — in that case, use your knowledge.
  5. Keep the oil at temperature for at least one hour and up to twelve, depending on your flavor preferences and application purposes.
  6. Some of the plant’s impurities will likely float to the top in a scuzzy residue. When this occurs, remove the scuzz with a spoon.
  7. Once you’re happy with the result, turn the heat off and let the oil cool. Then, strain the plant matter.
  8. Bottle the oil in the sterilized glass storage container.
  9. Label, date, and store your oil infusion in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use it.

No double-boiler? No problem. I make do with a steel mixing bowl inside of a stockpot, and it always works fine. You can also use a crockpot set on the “warm” setting but remember that most crockpots will heat between 165°F and 175°F on this setting. This temperature might be acceptable for infusing oils in a flavoring capacity, but it could destroy some compounds you need for medicine-making.

Method Combining

You don’t have to use just one method. You can combine both methods to get maximum flavor and efficacy from your oils. Combining techniques isn’t always necessary, but it works incredibly well for culinary oils like garlic and rosemary.

Heating the oil extracts a bright burst of intense flavor immediately, while the slow-steep afterward provides strength and depth to the infusion. Some medicinal plants, like calendula, also benefit from heat extraction in addition to cold steeping.

A Dose of Science

The processes described above are folk methods rather than rigid scientific formulas. They don’t give specific ratios because each plant is different, and the technique should be chosen and altered according to the particular plant and preferred application.

If you want a basic formula, use a 1:4 ratio of dry plant matter to oil. You’ll weigh out the dry plant matter in grams, then multiply that by four. The number you come up with is the amount of oil you will add in milliliters.

Here’s what that looks like on paper:

Dry plant weight (grams) x 4 = oil volume (milliliters)

So, 100 grams of dry plants would take 400 milliliters of oil for a 1:4 ratio.

What if you’re using fresh plants? You can use a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio since fresh material has more water, and the resulting infusion will be weaker. You can really use any ratio you want since the process is yours. Feel free to experiment and see what you like best!

Eventually, you’ll be able to alter your ratios and make oil infusions stronger or weaker, depending on your preferences.

Best Practices and Staying Safe

Infusing oils comes with the risks of spoilage and contamination. It’s wise to learn about best practices and take a few precautions to ensure the purity and longevity of your finished product.

Using Dry vs Fresh Organic Matter

Always start with dry plant material when infusing oils you plan to consume.

Fresh material contains water, which gets into the oil and creates a risk of rot, spoilage, and dangerous toxins like botulinum. When you start dry, you eliminate many safety issues. You’ll still need to monitor the oil infusion for rancidity and mold, but you should be safer storing it for extended periods.

So, what if you need to use fresh material? In the case of plants like St. John’s Wort, the general wisdom is that fresh is better. You can still use fresh plants in your infusions, but do not take them internally. Only use them to craft topicals like soap, salve, or massage oils.

The only exception to this rule is if you plan to consume the oil immediately. For example, I hosted my parents for a dinner party last week and was desperate to impress them. So, I used fresh garlic and peppercorns to make a quick hot infusion and served it up with crusty bread.

They liked it so much they didn’t even comment on the fact that I’m still using a particle-board bathroom vanity in place of real kitchen cabinets, even after three years of living in my house. And they always say something about that.

If you take a page from my book (it also works on in-laws and visiting clergypersons), use the oil within one or two days. It can spoil quickly, and it’s always better to play it safe.

Cheating the System with Acid

In 2014, the University of Idaho published research on how we could use fresh garlic and herbs to make an oil infusion that was actually shelf-stable. Their method involves acidifying plants in citric acid to bring down the pH and prevent microbial growth. It has been tested and proven only on garlic, basil, oregano, and rosemary.

This method calls for mincing or slicing the material into pieces no larger than ¼ inch. You must prepare a water solution with 3% citric acid (one tablespoon of citric acid per two cups of water) and soak the herbs or garlic for 24 hours. Afterward, they should be fully acidified, and you can use them safely when infusing oils.

Storing Infusions Correctly

Correct storage is paramount when learning how to make oil infusions at home. Glass is preferred because it will not leach. Ideally, you’ll use dark-colored glass receptacles since they provide some protection from UV radiation and subsequent degradation.

If you create a culinary oil with fresh herbs like I did for my parents, there’s no need to bottle it in dark glass since you’ll eat it almost immediately.

Store infusions in the fridge or in a cool, dark environment to discourage microbial growth. There are no guidelines for canning oils safely.

How to Extend an Infusion’s Shelf-Life

Correctly stored oil infusions might last up to a year or more. The shelf-life is highly variable and depends on how well you dried your herbs, if you stored the infusion properly, and the length of your carrier oil’s shelf-life.

You can add vitamin E oil if you want it to last longer. Make sure you use a vitamin E oil meant for consumption, and add it at a rate of 1% of the total volume. For example, if you end up with 400 ml of infused oil, add 4 ml of vitamin E oil.

It’s important to note here that vitamin E is not a true preservative but an antioxidant. Since dry plants won’t rot in the oil, what spoils infusions is usually natural oxidation. Vitamin E can prevent that for some time, though the exact length is variable and dependent on conditions.

Selecting Plants to Infuse

Knowing how to make oil infusions at home requires careful plant selection. Available options are unique to your region and garden, so you’ll need to research what you have to determine if it will suit this kind of infusion and which applications it might serve.

For culinary use, this is very easy. If it smells good and you’re sure it’s not toxic, go ahead and try it. For other products, you should pick plants depending on their properties. Find out what compounds they contain, if they can benefit you, and how you can best use them.

To help get you started, I’ve made a list of common plants and mushrooms and their uses:

  • Cloves: antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic
  • Garlic: antimicrobial, antifungal, antioxidative, antineoplastic
  • Wood ear mushroom: anticonvulsant, anticoagulant, blood sugar stabilizer, immunoregulatory
  • Chanterelle mushroom: anti-inflammatory, antineoplastic, antioxidative, regenerative, antimicrobial
  • Citrus: anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, relaxant, analgesic, antineoplastic, immunoregulatory
  • Chili peppers: anti-inflammatory, antineoplastic, immunoregulatory, coagulant, antipyretic, anti-anemic
  • Sage: antidepressant, antioxidative, antimicrobial, astringent, antiseptic, hormone regulator
  • Blueberry: antioxidative, regenerative
  • Mullein: expectorant, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, antimicrobial, analgesic
  • Cinnamon: anti-rheumatic, analgesic, relaxant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory
  • Oregano: antifungal, antioxidant, antiviral, expectorant, anti-inflammatory
  • Turmeric: anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antiseptic, antimicrobial, carminative
  • Basil: antioxidative, antineoplastic, antimicrobial, antidepressant, relaxant, antispasmodic
  • Goldenrod: anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diuretic, antioxidative

Choosing Your Carrier Oil

Deciding which oil is best for infusing each plant is a highly personal choice. As you learn how to make oil infusions at home, you’ll likely want to use ingredients you already have available. You can use any type of oil as a carrier, though some are more suited to specific applications than others.

Using pure plant oils rather than mystery mixes is a good idea. That way, you’ll know exactly which products you apply to your skin and put in your body. You can avoid adverse reactions and get the best results possible from your products.

So, which oil is best for infusing your plants? To help you choose, I’ve outlined some common carrier oils and how to use them. This list is not exhaustive; these are simply a few of my favorites.

Internal Use
  • Olive oil: Olive oil offers a rich, deep flavor that complements bright and aromatic herbs. It has a decent shelf life of up to 24 months and a low smoke point, so it isn’t best for high heat. Instead, use it for low-and-slow cooking, mild sautés, or dressings.
  • Walnut oil: Walnut oil has no distinct flavor and takes on the essence of infused plants well. It has a short shelf life of up to a year and a very low smoke point, so it isn’t really for cooking. Instead, use it for drizzling, finishing, and dipping.
  • Canola oil: Canola oil is neutral, rich in omega-3s, and budget-friendly. It will last up to a year and has a high smoke point perfect for frying, roasting, and high-heat sautés.
  • Avocado oil: Avocado oil is flavorless and odorless, enabling the flavor of infused plants to shine. Its high smoke point and apparent neutrality make it the queen of versatility; you can use it in anything.
  • Coconut oil: Coconut oil has a unique nutty flavor, perfect for sweet aromatics like cinnamon and allspice. It has a decent shelf-life of up to three years and a medium smoke point, so it’s great in baked goods like cookies.
External Use
  • Argan oil: Argan oil has vitamin E and omega fatty acids. It is heavy, moisturizing, and perfect for hair products and nail creams.
  • Olive Oil: Olive oil is a real workhorse, locking in moisture to keep skin, hair, and nails hydrated. For external use, buy an unrefined, cold-pressed variety.
  • Rosehip oil: Rosehip oil is a light oil full of vitamins and antioxidants. It is anti-inflammatory, perfect for sensitive skin, and may help clear skin conditions like acne and eczema.
  • Coconut oil: Coconut oil contains moisture-locking saturated fat and has antimicrobial properties. It is heavy and works great in hair and body creams, soaps, and household cleaners.
  • Jojoba oil: Jojoba oil has antimicrobial, antipyretic, and antioxidative properties. It is one of the best oils for medicinal salves, helping to clear up acne and soothing sunburn-related pain.

Ready to get started? I can’t blame you! Infusing oils is a rewarding way to get your creative juices flowing. Now that you know how to make oil infusions at home, you can start crafting custom concoctions for medicines, meals, and more.

View Comments

  • Wow, thanks for the easy to understand directions. Where is a good place to purchase infused products if I don’t have the time to do it all myself?

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