Several years ago I cooked raw Chinese herbs at home until I learned enough about Chinese herbs to know better. If you've ever had thoughts of cooking your own herbal remedies here's what you need to consider before cooking herbs.
Traditionally, Chinese herbs were always cooked in a formula or group of herbs boiled in a water decoction process and then strained and drunk as a tea. Today, cooking herbs at home isn't the most practical or safe approach to taking Chinese herbs as medicinals.
Cooking raw herbs might sound easy, but let's explore some of what this entails. First of all, when you buy raw Chinese herbs, do you know if your supplier has produced a COA (Certificate of Analysis) on the batch of raw herbs? COA's list the results of testing for pesticide residue, heavy metals, and bacteria such as E-coli and other contaminants which might be on the herbs. Do you know if the batch of raw herbs was rejected from a large herbal company because it did not pass heavy metal or pesticide test standards and ended up back on the wholesale market? This is common-place in the wholesale world of Chinese herbs, and the biggest and best companies bid for the best raw herb products.
Secondly, do you know the difference between high quality Chinese Herbs and a lesser quality? When you are buying fruits in the market, you generally will pick through the bruised and damaged fruits. You know what you're looking for. Can you say the same about your raw herbs? Do you know the difference between a high quality red date (Da Zao) versus a low quality one? Have the herbs been treated with sulfur to look fuller and plumper? When you open your package of raw herbs, does the product look and smell fresh? The same holds true for each raw herb you are purchasing. There is a tremendous difference between a high quality Chinese herb product and lesser quality. If you haven't studied or spent any time investigating these differences, how do you know what you are buying?
Another important issue to consider is storage of raw herbs. Unless you use your raw herbs quickly or store them in a refrigerator, bugs are bound to find their way into the herbs. You will see little holes in roots and sometimes little worms or flies. If you plan on cooking raw Chinese herbs at home, definitely give them a good washing before cooking and strain them well after cooking. Plan on using them within a few months of purchasing them.
What about the cooking process itself? Chinese Herbs have a variety of decoction cooking periods. You will want to be familiar with which herbs you are cooking and how long they should be cooked. There is too much information about this subject to explore here. In general, minerals and shells are cooked longer, sometimes as long as an hour. Herbs such as mint (bo he) and Atractylodis Rhizoma (Cang Zhu) are cooked for only a few minutes. These two herbs have highly volatile oil content which contains the active beneficial chemical constituents in the herbs, and when cooked for a longer period of time, the volatile oils are evaporated.
The temperature during the process of cooking Chinese herbs is another variable to consider. Too high and you destroy active ingredients. Too low and you don't extract enough active ingredients. Again, unless you have acquired a significant knowledge of herbs, most likely you will overcook your herbs. That smell in the kitchen is probably the volatile oils evaporating into thin air. Since typical home kitchens do not have fancy machines to capture volatile oils and reintroduce them back into the finished herb product, you will never be able to cook the same strength of product as a factory with high-tech equipment. Additionally, some types of metal cookware can interfere with the active chemicals in various herbs. Traditionally, clay cookware was used. Today, glass cookware is an option, although from my experience, glass is difficult to find.
Cooking your own Chinese herbs is probably not the best use of both your time and resources. There are many excellent manufacturers of Chinese herbs to choose from with all the safety guards in place to ensure that you receive an effective and contaminant-free herb product. Cooking at home just isn't safe enough anymore. Plus, there's that little problem of the stench in the kitchen.
Cathy Margolin is a Licensed Acupuncturist in CA and has been certified as a Diplomat in Oriental Medicine from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She has specialized in Chinese Herbs and her company PACHerbs.com carries high potency herbal products sold in individual packets for freshness.