Chinese herbal medicine is one of the many therapies offered in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system. Your TCM practitioner may prescribe you raw herbs as part of your treatment plan. Now you need to cook the raw herbs to make a decoction. I am sharing in this post what I have learned in order to cook Chinese herbal medicine correctly.
When I lived in China, every family would cook Chinese herbal medicine at some point when a family member gets sick. Over there, traditional medicine is deeply ingrained in the culture and normal life. In North America where western medicine is mainstream, many people (myself included years ago) find it a daunting task to make their own herbal decoction. After a lengthy period of time as a patient of Traditional Chinese Medicine and cooking Chinese herbs myself, I want to share the method for those new to cooking Chinese herbal medicine.
Basic Steps to Cooking Chinese Herbal Medicine
The basic steps to cook Chinese herbal medicine consist of the following.
- Soaking the herbs
- Boiling the herbs
- Straining to separate the decoction from the herbs
- Sometimes reboiling (and strain again) depending on the herbs
It’s important to note that the exact instructions vary depending on the herbs included in the prescription. Some herbs are best to be boiled a second time, and other herbs should only be cooked once. Be sure to listen to the detailed instructions from your herbalist. Nonetheless, there are many important aspects that apply to cooking any Chinese herbal remedy.
Cookware for Chinese Herbal Medicine
Traditionally the raw herbs are cooked in clay pots. I love mine, as shown in the pictures in this post. The clay pot is made specifically for cooking Chinese herbs. It’s really handy that the pot comes with a handle and a spout. There are small holes where the spout connects to the pot that act as a built-in filter. These small holes allow the liquid to flow through, while keeping the herbs inside the pot. If you cook your herbs with a pot like this, you won’t need a separate strainer to strain the decoction from the herbs after cooking.
I bought my clay pot from a Chinese kitchen and herbal shop. But there are many different pots you can find online as well. I definitely recommend a clay pot similar to what I own. I would also recommend you to go with a large size pot if you get size options. My pot can hold up to 1 gallon of water. Because my herbalist tends to use a lot of herbs in a prescription, having a large pot that can hold all of the herbs is very convenient. Remember, you can always cook less herbs in a large pot, but you can’t cook a big batch of herbs in a small pot.
Electrical Ceramic Pots
There are some modern Chinese herb cookers on the market these days. From what I have seen, they are typically electrical ceramic pots. I don’t own one, but I think they are convenient especially if you are on the road without access to a stove, as these electrical herb cookers can be plugged in anywhere.
The drawback is they don’t usually come with a timer or programmable feature (at least based on the electrical herb cookers I have seen so far), which I would very much appreciate in an electrical cookware. You still need to monitor the amount of cooking time.
If you can find a programmable herb cooker, I think it’s worth the convenience and benefits. Alternatively, I think I may try the Instant Pot with the slow-cooking feature, since I already own one and the Instant Pot is fully programable.
Stainless Steel Pot
The last option, if you don’t want to invest in a special cookware, you can use any stainless steel pot. Make sure the stainless steel pot is clean and free of oil. After cooking, simply pour the medicine through a strainer to filter the liquid from the herbs.
Should I Wash the Herbs?
Chinese herbs shouldn’t be washed before soaking. Many herbal prescription contain small plants and seeds. They will be easily lost if the herbs are washed.
How Long to Soak the Herbs?
Before cooking the herbs, they should be pre-soaked in order to get the most benefits from boiling later. I have learned that soaking the herbs for 15 to 30 minutes is usually sufficient. Depending on what is in the herbs. If the remedy contains mostly leaves, flowers and small seeds, I would soak them for approximately 15 minutes. If the remedy contains many stems and roots, I would soak them longer, for approximately 30 minutes or more. There is no strict rules around soaking time, the above is a typical range based on what you are working with.
Cooking Time + Do The Herbs Need a Re-boil?
A batch of Chinese herbs is usually boiled once or twice. How many times the herbs are boiled and the amount of cooking time depend on what kind of herbs are used. These steps are where the variations come in.
The Herbalist Decides the Cooking Time and Whether to Boil Once or Twice
I have learned that, usually the herbs can be cooked twice; and in general, the herbs used for fighting infection require the least amount of cooking time, the regular herbs (such as ones to support digestion) require longer cooking time, and the herbs to strengthen and nourish require the longest cooking time.
The above is a rough guideline I came across when I was reading about how to cook Chinese herbal medicine. In reality, individual herbs can vary, and the herbalists often mix herbs with different purposes in the same remedy to target a person’s unique health concern. Some herbs aren’t suitable for cooking twice or aren’t necessary to be cooked twice. It isn’t hard to understand that certain herbs need to be cooked long enough to extract all the benefits; but it’s important to point out certain herbs will turn toxic if cooked for too long.
Your TCM practitioner will provide the exact cooking time and method, when he or she prescribes the herbs. This is often based on the experience and style of the practitioner and how he or she plans to treat the specific ailment. Now you see, the timing for cooking herbs isn’t that cut and dry – there is no one right way to cook them, but you do have to listen to your TCM practitioner and not to cook them the wrong way.
In real life scenarios, I have found that my herbal prescriptions can rarely be strictly categorized. Sometimes my herbs need to be cooked twice, and other times they need only one boil. For example, the batch I have in this picture requires one boil for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The cooking time provided by the TCM practitioner is the cooking time after the herbs start to boil.
Cooking Time is Not Determined by How Much Liquid is Left
The last myth I want to bust is that “the herbs need to be cooked long enough for the decoction to reduce to 1 cup”. Maybe you have heard of such thing, but I really don’t think it makes sense. The amount of water added into the pot depends on how much herbs there is – you typically want to cover the herbs and then some. The cooking time is based on what kinds of herbs are in the remedy. Given these factors, you won’t end up with 1 cup of decoction all the time. Maybe some remedies do yield 1 cup of decoction, but my herbal remedies have almost never turned out this way after I have been cooking herbal medicine for years.
There were also times I was told by my TCM practitioner that I can add extra water into the pot to cook the herbs, in order to yield a more diluted decoction, which won’t irritate my stomach as much as I sip on all day.
TCM Applications Beyond Herbal Medicine
In addition to being boiled down into a decoction to use as medicine, Chinese herbs and TCM concepts are frequently incorporated into food remedies and nourishing soups. If you are fascinated by Traditional Chinese Medicine, you may love the following recipes that are both healing and tasty.
- Chinese Herbal Healing Oxtail Soup
- Ginseng Chicken Soup: The Ultimate Nourishing Soup for Energy, Brain Function and Immune Support
- Natural PMS Remedy: PMS Relief Herbal Chicken Soup (四物汤)
- Adrenal Support Chinese Herbs And Pig Stomach Soup (四神汤)
- Millet Porridge: A Chinese Postpartum & Digestive Healer
- Sichuan Fritillaria Steamed Pear (川贝雪梨): Natural Cough Remedy of Traditional Chinese Medicine
- Honeysuckle, Monk Fruit and Chrysanthemum Tea (TCM, Keto, Vegan)
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How to Cook Chinese Herbal Medicine
- 1 packet Chinese herbs
- Place the herbs into a herb cooker (clay, ceramic or stainless steel). Add water into the cooker until just covering the herbs, then add 1 more cup of water. Let the herbs soak for 15 to 30 minutes. See post above for more details.
- Turn on heat to bring the herbs to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer the herbs for the amount of time given for the herbs by your TCM practitioner.
- If your herbal remedy requires a second boil, refill the herb cooker with the same amount of water as the first boil, but no need to soak the herbs this time. Repeat the steps 2 and 3. Note that the amount of time required for the 2nd boil, may not be the same as the 1st boil. Follow the exact timing given by your TCM practitioner.