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Herbal healing from your kitchen

Reading time: 11 minutes

It’s easy to create your own home apothecary with common kitchen herbs, says renowned herbalist Kat Maier. Here’s a sprinkling of her favorite healing herbs and recipes

One of the best-kept secrets is that most kitchens already have the makings of a fine home apothecary. Ordinary cooking spices such as salt, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, thyme and garlic are the foundations of an herbal medicine cabinet.

When anxious parents call me in the middle of the night to ask what to do for a child suffering from pinkeye, I start by asking whether they have rosemary in their spice rack. If they say yes, I tell them to rub some of the leaves between their fingers.

As long as they can smell the classic rosemary scent, then the essential oils are still present, even if the herb is several years old. These volatile oils have the power to clear heat (pink = heat) and infection. I then tell them to make a compress (cloth dipped in an herbal infusion and applied to the body) to gently apply over the eyes.

In most cases, medicine-making involves creating extractions, which simply means a preparation that pulls out the plant’s medicinal components into a liquid medium called the menstruum. A tea is a water extraction, a tincture is an alcohol or vinegar extraction, and an herbal oil is an oil extraction.

Each plant has a preferred menstruum depending on its constituents as well as energetics. After a plant has soaked in a menstruum and the liquid is strained off, the plant material left behind is called the marc.

One important practical note about making medicines: for any medicine you plan to store, even for a short time, label the container with the date on which the medicine was made, the source of plant material (wholesale/retail company or location harvested), and the type of menstruum.

Healing kitchen herbs

Here are some of my most loved and used herbal allies. All except cinnamon can be grown in most locales, even in containers on an apartment windowsill or patio. While garlic might prefer to grow in a garden bed, I have known folks who grow it in containers on a city balcony with success.

Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens, C. annuum)

This red-hot spice has earned a reputation as a cure-all—its ability to enhance blood flow addresses so many issues. When used in hot, tropical climes, this stimulant moves blood so well that it cools the body as it brings blood to the surface.

Dr John R. Christopher, founder of the School of Natural Healing, used it successfully for cases of angina. Although angina is a very serious condition, in an emergency situation, taking directly in powder form in water or tincture directly under the tongue can stimulate circulation while medical help is being sought. It can also stanch bleeding if used topically but will create a burning sensation.

This is one of the easiest garden plants to grow, and you will be stringing them or giving them away before you know it.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, M. recutita)

While not generally considered a culinary herb, chamomile offers so many benefits that every kitchen should have a supply on hand. As a digestive bitter, chamomile is excellent for all types of digestive complaints. It is calming and soothing for inflammation. It contains antioxidants, and thus a cup of chamomile tea is a general healthful beverage.

Applying a tea bag on a sty or inflamed wound is a great antimicrobial as well as astringent.

Matricaria chamomilla (also called M. recutita) is the preferred medicinal species rather than Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile).

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, C. verum)

This warm, pungent, aromatic bark is a wonderful stimulant for digestion as well as for circulation. Traditionally, the cooler months were greeted with the aroma of cinnamon added to cooked fruits or added to milk as a warming, relaxing sleep tonic. Such a common kitchen spice, yet a complex and revered medicine.

There are actually two types of cinnamon to consider. Cinnamomum cassia, or Cassia cinnamon, is the most common one we find in commercial spices and is pungent and spicier. C. verum (also known as C. zeylanicum) is considered the preferred cinnamon and has the common name of Ceylon cinnamon. This variety is sweeter.

Research shows that consumption of either bark increases the production of insulin by the pancreas, thus lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.1

If you plan to take larger quantities, such as ½ teaspoon of bark powder two to three times a day for medicinal purposes, it is best to work with Ceylon cinnamon. No matter which species, though, sprinkling cinnamon into tea blends, coffee, soups and rice dishes is a healthy way to spice up our lives.

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is a veritable apothecary in itself. Best known for its antimicrobial action, garlic has been seen to clear deep-seated infections.

To get the benefit of its antimicrobial actions, though, it’s necessary to eat garlic raw or very close to raw. A favorite method is to mince a clove (if you have never eaten raw garlic, start with a small amount and work your way up) and add it to a teaspoon of honey. The honey is also a medicine, and it protects the stomach if the heat of garlic is too upsetting.

While the odor of garlic on the breath can be bothersome to others, it is evidence that the volatile oil has reached the lungs and the medicine is doing its work. According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), this food strongly transforms and expels “damp stagnation” from the lungs and digestive tract.

As a cooking spice, garlic is wonderful for digestion; it even contains inulin, a prebiotic that is necessary for good intestinal flora. Garlic also lowers high blood pressure.2 Aged garlic capsules can be effective for treating this condition, but the preferred form for most other applications is as a food, preferably fresh.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

This is usually the first herb I reach for when I feel a cold or flu coming on. Fresh ginger is one of the most important herbs in TCM for treatment of “wind cold” in patients who are feeling run down.

Dried ginger is hotter and more intense, so I freeze organic fresh ginger. It keeps well frozen for at least six months, so it’s a good method for ensuring you always have some fresh herb available. If the root is large, break it into smaller pieces and place them in a well-sealed container. Gingerroot is very easy to peel and grate when it is frozen. (Peeling is not necessary if it is organic.)

Many healing herbs are cool in nature, and adding ginger to a blend warms up the formula. The addition of fresh or dried ginger to a formula keeps the herbs in the system longer as well, helping to be sure the medicine permeates to the extremities.

Dried ginger powder makes an excellent paste to apply to sinuses or areas of the body you want to warm. Be mindful that it will bring blood quickly (desired action) and that you may need to take off the paste in 10 to 20 minutes. To make a paste, simply add a small amount of warm water slowly to ginger powder, mix well, and when the consistency is right, apply to the face near the cheekbones.

Ginger is possibly best known for reducing nausea due to morning sickness and motion sickness, or nausea arising after consuming a heavy meal. It works by warming the stomach, which settles queasy feelings.

As an acrid herb, it reduces spasms internally and externally. There is nothing so divine as a fresh ginger bath. Make a very strong ginger tea by grating half a fresh gingerroot into a two-quart pan, adding cool water, bringing to a boil, then simmering for an hour. Strain this, add it to bathwater, then slip into a warm, relaxing realm. Ginger deeply penetrates tense muscles.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)

Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs for stimulating circulation and carrying other herbs to the sites where they are needed. Rosmarinic acid is the compound that makes this revered Mediterranean spice a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Rosemary is a wonderful stimulating tea for enhancing memory, alertness, and for clearing headaches. It is a strong-tasting herb, so blend well with other herbs, or you can make a tea rather than a strong infusion.

It is my go-to remedy to clear pinkeye as well as skin infections. It works particularly well for thrush and fungal infections.

Rosmarinus, rose of the sea, makes a beautiful, aromatic topical oil for chest congestion. Its antioxidant properties are seen in the way this wonderful ally lasts and keeps its potency in our spice racks.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Sage is an unsung heroine of our spice cabinets. This lack of favor might be due to its astringent taste, but the plant held center stage in ancient times. Its power is evident even in its name—salvia means “to save” in Greek.

This culinary herb is so drying that nursing mothers are advised to drink it in a tea if they want to cease milk production. This same astringent power makes it my number one remedy in working with sore, swollen throats. I use it in a throat spray, a gargle or a tea with honey and lemon.

Used as a mouth rinse, sage is wonderful for all inflammation of the gums and mouth. Highly aromatic, sage contains antioxidants and other compounds that support immune function when working against microbes. As the name implies, it has been used for centuries with elders to promote memory and cognitive health.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

One of the easiest culinary plants to cultivate, this humble, low-growing herb is one of the hottest and most penetrating of spices. Thyme is a very powerful medicine for all kinds of infections but especially those in the respiratory and digestive systems. Due to its intensity, it is the perfect remedy for cold, thick, phlegmatic bronchial conditions.

As a specific for whooping cough, this medicine is coming back into the limelight in a time when antibiotic-resistant strains are challenging our immune systems.

As a topical, thyme is wonderful for clearing fungal infections as well as wet, oozing skin conditions. It’s also great as a steam inhalation combined with sage and rosemary.

Harvesting herbs

Although timing of harvesting varies somewhat by region, here are some general guidelines:

  • If you want to harvest leaf medicine, it is best to gather before the plant flowers.
  • When harvesting flowers, gather blossoms just before or at full flower.
  • Gather seeds after they have turned from green to mature, but don’t wait too long because the oils and medicine in them can dissipate.
  • For roots, harvest after the second frost. The first frost alerts all aboveground parts of the plant to drop into the root for winter storage. After the second frost, most of the plant energy has moved into the root. If you live in a region where temperatures do not drop below freezing, harvest the root when the plant is in its most dormant state.

For all aboveground plant parts, it is best to wait to harvest until after 10:00 a.m., or after the dew has evaporated and before the intense heat of the day wilts the plant. Harvesting after a series of sunny days is ideal because it makes drying the harvested plant parts that much easier.

Drying herbs

Start simple and with small quantities. Hanging herbs in bundles is the traditional method. It is important to provide good airflow; on humid days, set up a fan to keep air moving. One method I’ve used is to throw a sheet on the floor of a spare room and lay out the herbs on the sheet. Once a day, I shake the sheet to turn over the stems, flowers or leaves.

Plants that contain a lot of water, such as comfrey, are the most challenging to dry. If you see black spots on leaves or telltale fuzzy growth, those are signs of mold. Simply break off those parts of the leaves, as the rest is still good for use.

A warm attic is ideal for drying herbs. Be mindful, though, that too much heat will crisp the material, which speeds up deterioration of constituents. Using a food dehydrator to dry herbs works well, as does using an oven (the very low heat provided by the pilot light serves well for drying herbs).

There’s nothing sadder than losing a harvest because you moved herbs into storage too soon. You want the leaves to crumble when you rub them between your fingers, but you don’t want them too crisp.

A tried-and-true test of whether herbs are ready to be stored is to put a small amount of the dried herb in a mason jar and screw the lid on tight. If there is still moisture in the herb, condensate will form on the wall of the jar in a day or two. If this happens, continue drying and test again.

Basic hot herbal infusion

Infusions are strong medicinal brews that call for using more plant material and a longer steeping time than for beverage teas. I usually prepare infusions in a pint or quart-size glass jar; the dose is commonly two to four cups a day.

Some herbs produce an infusion that is too bitter or sour for drinking if steeped longer than an hour. Chamomile and sage are more palatable with shorter brew times (15–20 minutes).

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Always cover a steeping infusion so the volatile oils are not lost when hot water is added to the plant material.
  • When working with fresh plant material, chop well and let it sit longer than dried since the cell walls are still intact and the medicine is not as easily accessible.
  • Use 1 tablespoon dried plant material per cup of water; for fresh plant material, use 3 tablespoons per cup of water.


  1. Add plant material to a wide-mouth glass jar.
  2. Add boiling water.
  3. Cap with lid and steep 1 hour for flowers and leaves or 4 hours for roots, barks and seeds.
  4. Decant (pour off) the liquid from the plant material. Squeeze the plant material with your hands or with muslin cloth to remove as much liquid as possible.
  5. Compost the marc (herb matter that has been steeped). If desired, rewarm the liquid and then add honey to taste.

Basic herbal honey with fresh aromatic plants

This is an excellent food/medicine for sore, inflamed throats and irritating coughs. Fresh plant aromatics are beautifully released into the honey. Some great choices for flavoring honey are ginger, rosemary, sage, holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), bee balm (Monarda spp.), mints and garlic. Have fun experimenting!

Honey is antimicrobial, but if you use fresh plant material, that will introduce water and possibly a range of microbes into the honey. In my experience, this has not negatively impacted the honey or made it turn bad, but if you are concerned about spoilage, simply store the herbal honey in the refrigerator.


  1. Fill a dry glass jar with coarsely chopped fresh herbs.
  2. Cover herbs with honey.
  3. Stir with chopstick to be sure all plant material is coated with honey.
  4. Fill jar to the top with honey.
  5. Use a chopstick or similar implement to release air bubbles trapped in the honey.
  6. Cap tightly and label. Let sit for 2 to 4 weeks.
  7. Strain out the herb material. You can use the herbs to make a delicious tea with honey-soaked herbs. Or don’t strain and simply eat the honey with the herbs included.

If you want to make garlic honey, follow the instructions above using whole, unpeeled cloves. The sitting time for this honey is much shorter—it will be ready for use after 24 hours, and the leftover cloves will be delicious, too. You can eat them raw as they will be tempered by the extraction process, or you can cook with them as usual.

Simple onion syrup

Onion syrup is excellent taken by the teaspoon to soothe respiratory infections and ease congestion. It also makes a great addition to salad dressings and winter dishes.


  1. Place 1 cup roughly chopped fresh onion in a pint jar with a small handful of fresh or dried sage, rosemary or thyme. If desired, you can also add the juice of half a lemon or 1 teaspoon freshly grated gingerroot.
  2. Add enough honey to cover the onion and herbs.
  3. Cap tightly and label.
  4. Let sit overnight. The honey will very effectively absorb all the juice from the onion. The syrup will be ready for use in the morning. Some people like to eat the onion bits along with the honey, while others prefer to strain out the solids.

Traditional fire cider vinegar

This is an adaptation of herbalist Rosemary Gladstar’s widely shared recipe.3 Feel free to adapt it as you wish with ingredients like black pepper, turmeric, pomegranates and elderberries. Brimming with antimicrobial herbs, this is the perfect remedy for preventing and treating colds and other infections.


½ cup grated horseradish root

½ cup or more chopped onions

½ cup chopped thyme leaves

¼ cup or more chopped garlic

¼ cup or more grated ginger

¼ cup chopped rosemary leaves

Cayenne pepper, fresh or dried, to taste

4 to 6 cups apple cider vinegar (preferably raw and organic)

Honey, to taste


  1. Place herbs in a half-gallon mason jar and cover by three to four inches with vinegar.
  2. Seal the jar and place parchment paper against metal rim lid to prevent rusting.
  3. Shake every day for three to four weeks.
  4. Strain out the herbs, warm some honey so it will mix well, then flavor the vinegar to your preferred sweetness.
  5. Label the jar, then store in a cool pantry or refrigerator for up to several months.

Take 1 teaspoon, in water, once or twice a day as a preventative, or more frequently if you feel a cold coming on.

Adapted from Kat Maier’s recent book Energetic Herbalism: A Guide to Sacred Plant Traditions Integrating Elements of Vitalism, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicine with permission from the publisher (Chelsea Green, 2022)


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  1. J Trad Compl Med, 2016; 6(4): 332–36
  2. Nutr Res, 2014; 34(2): 106–15
  3. Rosemary Gladstar, Fire Cider! 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar (Storey, 2019)
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