Decoction

masala chai
Masala Chai. Lew Robertson / Getty Images

Definition:

(verb) Decoction is a method of making coffeesteas and tisanes (especially medicinal herbal teas) that involves boiling plant material.

(noun) A decoction is a drink made by decocting plant material in water.

How to Make a Decoction

Most people usually make a decoction by doing the following:

  1. Placing plant matter in a non-aluminum pot with cool water.
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil.
  3. Boil the mixture anywhere from eight minutes until up to two-thirds of the water has evaporated.*
  1. Strain the mixture before consumption.

* The length of the boiling time depends on the type of plant material in question and the desired strength of the decoction. Seed "teas" are often boiled for as little as five to ten minutes. In Chinese herbalism, the plant material may be boiled for an hour or longer.

To Mash or Not to Mash?

Some decoction recipes call for mashing plant material prior to adding it to cool water and boiling it. If you're decocting plant materials that have previously been processed and / or dried (such as tea leaves, coffee beans, ground coffee or dried herbs), then mashing is unnecessary. If you're decocting fresh plant material, then mashing or chopping the material will help the plant release its oils, volatile organic compounds and other chemical substances more quickly and completely.

Types of Decoctions

There are many types of decoctions out there. You've probably drunk some of them before.

Decoctions include:

  • Traditional Indian masala chai (and many other teas made in India)
  • Most traditional Chinese medicinal herbal teas
  • Tibetan yak butter tea
  • Boiled ginger tea, as well as many other "root teas" (including those from rhizomes), such as chicory root tea, echinacea root tea and astragalus root tea
  • Medicinal drinks such as boiled garlic
  • Most seed teas, including fennel, anise and cardamom seed teas
  • Boiled cinnamon herbal tea
  • Many berry "teas" (especially those made with dried berries)
  • Indian filter coffee
  • "Cowboy coffee"
  • "Boiled coffee" in general (common in Nordic and Middle Eastern coffee cultures, and common practice in much of the world until the 1930s)
  • Turkish coffee / Greek coffee
  • Coffee prepared in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony

Decoctions vs. Infusions

Compare decoction to infusion, which is also a common way to prepare teas and tisanes. Decoctions release more essential oils and flavor from plant matter and are often used for plant matter with tough surfaces or smaller surface areas.

Leaf, flower and some seed tisanes are generally made with the infusion method. Bark, root, berry and some seed tisanes are generally prepared with the decoction method.

Like "decoction," "infusion" may also refer to the beverage that results from the process of decoction.

Drinks Similar to Decoctions

Worldwide, there are several types of drinks that are similar to decoctions. The most common are percolator coffee and variations on mulled apple cider and mulled wine.

Percolator coffee differs from decocted coffee in that it is not boiled down substantially.

Since it is made in a chamber (rather than an open-topped vessel, like an ibrik), much of the liquid drips back down into the boiling mixture rather than evaporating off. Additionally, it is not usually boiled long enough to reduce the volume of liquid substantially.

Mulled drinks are similar to decoctions in that they are boiled with spiced to extract the flavor and properties of spices / plant material and are reduced in volume in the process. The main difference between mulled drinks and decoctions is that decoctions are water-based and mulled drinks are not. Additionally, most decoctions do not thicken much as they boil, but mulled drinks do.

Pronunciation

de-cock-shun

Etymology

The word "decoction" comes from the Latin word "decoquere" (meaning "to boil down"). The word "decoquere" comes from "de" (meaning "from") and "coquere" (meaning "to cook").