This story was originally featured on Saveur.
When you spend a lot of time testing recipes, you end up with lots of fun new ingredients piled up in your kitchen. My spice drawer overflows with things I needed to use only once, and I do my best to put them to use in other ways. People talk about using up scraps of food (and that’s really important), but spices left ignored for too long get sad, too. Don’t let them go to waste.
The easiest, most forgiving, and flexible way I’ve found to use up spices is to turn them into tisanes or herbal infusions. I love drinking tea, but I have to cut off my caffeine intake pretty early in the day if I want to get to sleep at a decent hour. So in the afternoon, I help myself to a mix of spices, herbs, flowers, and citrus to make a non-caffeinated drink that fits my mood.
Making these potions has become second nature to me—in the back of my mind I’m always wondering what would be nice in my afternoon herbal tea. But when I share them with others, most are pleasantly surprised and say something along the lines of “I’ve never thought to do that.” It couldn’t be easier to make them—so easy that you don’t need much of a recipe to follow to make your own.
I don’t have a precise method and never use measurements, but a good starting ratio is 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of herbs, spices, or flowers to 2 cups of boiling water. Let them steep for 3 to 5 minutes, see how you like the result, then adjust concentrations and steeping times accordingly.
I do my best to use organic herbs and spices, and if I’m adding citrus peel, I scrub the citrus before peeling. Also: if there’s a scraped vanilla pod anywhere near me, I will turn it into some kind of infusion. I keep a collection of them in a jar specifically for adding to these drinks.
General potion principles
It’s also worth keeping some spice notes in mind. Fennel, star anise, and licorice all add a nice natural sweetness, but they’re strong, so use them sparingly. Cinnamon is good for sweetness, too. For bright flavors, I reach for citrus peels, sumac, and rose hips. And for a dose of astringency, dried lime and hibiscus do wonders.
Here are some combinations I’m into:
- Fennel seed + dried lime
- Coriander seed + lemon peel
- Ginger + cinnamon + rose
- Fennel seed + ginger + fresh mint
- Cardamom + clove + vanilla
- Vanilla + rose
- Cacao nibs + clove + vanilla
- Sumac + hibiscus + citrus peel (Meyer lemon is my favorite)
- Juniper berry + lime peel
And some recipes to get you started: