Preserving Summer Herbs By Making Oxymel
article by Shannon Dahlum, FDN-P
I love the idea of having a backyard vegetable garden where I can pick vine ripened tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and colorful peppers to eat all summer long. Every spring, I plant seeds and have the best intentions of tending to my modest patch of dirt, but somewhere along the way I lose my green thumb and my plants wither in the oppressive heat as much as I do. Clearly, a bountiful vegetable garden won’t thrive on good intentions alone. I have, however, learned that one edible variety of plants really does thrive and produce all summer long despite my lack of attention: herbs.
Herbs have become my go-to backyard staple not only because of how easy they are to grow, but how versatile they are to use in the kitchen. There’s nothing that can jazz up a dish (or cover up my not-so-great cooking) like a handful of freshly picked herbs. By volume, herbs are also far more nutrient dense than any vegetable out there, so they provide much more than just a punch of flavor. Packed with health supporting minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals, herbs have been used as medicine since ancient times.
As we near the end of summer I find myself pressed to figure out how to make use of all the herbs before they flower and go to seed. Once the plant’s energy moves away from growing new leaves to producing flowers and seeds, the flavor profile of the plant’s leaves changes. It begins to turn bitter, and I can only imagine the nutritional profile likely changes, too. When I start to see the flowers emerge, I continually pick them off to delay the process until I can harvest the plants and turn them into something that I’ll be able to continue using well into winter. Pesto is something I frequently make when I have a pretty big harvest of herbs, and of course drying the leaves to use in dishes and teas is also an option. This year, I’m preserving many of my herbs by making oxymel.
Oxymels are herbal preparations made by infusing herbs in honey and vinegar. The name itself, “oxy” + “mel” means “acid and honey.” They date back to the ancient Greeks, and Hippocrates used them in medical formulations. These sweet and sour tonics can be used as remedies for specific ailments, depending on which herbs are used, or as a general health tonic. They’re also wonderful just for adding more complex flavors to salad dressings, roasted vegetables, cocktails and mocktails. Oxymels are notably used to calm gastrointestinal symptoms and to improve digestion, so I enjoy making pre-dinner digestif mocktails with them to sip on while I cook.
Of course, the herbs chosen to include in an oxymel will shape its flavor, but they can also alter how the extraction supports the body. The herbs I tend to grow and use the most are common ones that perhaps you have growing in your yard as well: peppermint, lemon balm, basil, thyme, and rosemary. To preserve them, I’m making one oxymel with peppermint and lemon balm, and am combining basil, thyme and rosemary for another.
Peppermint, as well as all forms of mint, are cooling and I find them so refreshing to include in drinks on these hot days. Mint is also a strong reliever of digestive complaints, including gas, bloating, belching and even hiccups. It’s been clinically shown to be helpful for people suffering with severe digestive disorders, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Lemon Balm is part of the mint family, so it also provides some cooling properties. As a “carminative” herb, it relives stagnant digestion, eases abdominal cramping, and supports the overall digestive process. Lemon Balm also has some potent antiviral properties so it can be supportive for warding off colds and other viral infections. It also acts as a nervine, or tonic to soothe the nervous system. This makes it wonderful to enjoy in a beverage in the evening, as it calms stress and anxiety, and promotes sleep.
Basil has a powerful anti-inflammatory action and supports the liver, which is vital for healthy detoxification, digestion, and hormonal balance. It has properties that can help lower cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure. It can stimulate the appetite, relieve acid reflux, and reduce bloating and water retention.
Thyme is known primarily for its ability to address infection, upper respiratory symptoms and digestive issues. It supports healthy digestion in small quantities, and in larger quantities can treat symptoms related to stagnant digestion, like bloating and gas. It can also be helpful for those with diarrhea or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Its antimicrobial properties support a healthy balance of microbes in the digestive tract, as well.
Rosemary is a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. It’s considered a cognitive stimulant that helps improve memory, concentration and focus. It also boosts the immune system and improves blood circulation. Of course, like the other herbs discussed here, it has digestive supporting characteristics, too. It can calm heartburn, intestinal gas, liver and gallbladder complaints, and can stimulate the appetite. It’s a powerful antibacterial that can support a healthy internal microbial balance, as well.
When it comes it selecting herbs for an oxymel, there’s really no right our wrong choice. All herbs contain a variety of health supporting benefits, so just go with what you have or the flavors you like best. The vinegar and honey you’ll be infusing them in also provide additional support.
Vinegar is used for making oxymel because it has the ability to effectively extract the minerals, vitamins and medicinal qualities from the herbs you choose to infuse into it. It also provides its own benefits, as well. In last month’s issue of BayouLife Magazine, I wrote an article about supporting healthy blood sugar regulation, and one tip was to incorporate vinegar into your meals. If you missed it, you can find it on page 20 of the July 2023 issue to learn more about how vinegar can prevent sharp blood sugar spikes and promote healthy body fat mass. You can view and read it online, too, at bayoulifemag.com, if you don’t have a copy of the magazine.
Other types of vinegars can be used for making oxymel, but I like to incorporate raw apple cider vinegar because it contains enzymes and gut supporting bacteria that promote healthy digestive function and a balanced gut environment. Many common symptoms of indigestion can be caused by low stomach acid, and adding vinegar to a beverage before meals stimulates the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. This can not only prevent uncomfortable indigestion, but helps the body assimilate the nutrients from meals more effectively.
Raw honey takes the pungent edge off the vinegar which makes the oxymel more palatable, and it also has a history of use in the treatment of digestive ailments. It contains living enzymes that support the digestion and assimilation of food, and it also contains a form of indigestible carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, which support a healthy gut microbiome. Current research suggests that raw honey can reduce the presence of infection causing bacteria in the gut while simultaneously supporting the growth of beneficial species.
To make oxymel, in addition to herbs, raw apple cider vinegar and raw honey, you’ll need a sterile pint sized jar with a plastic lid, or a metal lid and a piece of parchment paper or coffee filter. After rinsing and drying your fresh herbs, add enough to your jar to fill it to the top. As for the amount of honey and vinegar you add, I’ve seen several variations on this. One source instructed to fill half the jar with honey and the other half with vinegar. Another source suggested using 1/4 cup of honey and then filling the remaining space in the jar with the vinegar. My takeaway from these variations is that it doesn’t really matter. You can’t do this wrong! I personally prefer the half honey, half vinegar method for its sweeter flavor.
Once your jar is full, top it with a plastic lid or place a piece of parchment paper or a coffee filter between the jar and a metal lid (to prevent corrosion) and leave it to infuse for two to four weeks, depending on how strong you prefer the herbal flavor to be. Be sure to flip the jar or give it a good shake every day. After the extraction is finished, strain your oxymel into a clean container and it’s ready to use.
Use your oxymel to make vinaigrette dressings for salads or drizzle it over roasted vegetables. My favorite way to utilize it is to create a digestif mocktail by adding 1-2 tablespoons to a glass of sparkling water and including a garnish of fresh herbs or fruit. Sipping it before or during a meal is a simple and enjoyable way to support healthy digestion.
Oxymel also makes a tasty modifier to classic cocktails and mixes best with botanical spirits like gin or aquavit. It provides additional depth to a Gin and Tonic, and a tasty compliment to sour cocktails, like a Ramos Gin Fizz or a Bee’s Knees.
1/4 cup oxymel
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/4 cup cold pressed extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients with a whisk, or shake in a closed jar until it emulsifies. Use as a salad dressing or drizzle over roasted vegetables.
Oxymel Gin Sour
2 oz gin
1 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 oz simple syrup or agave nectar
1/4 oz oxymel
1 egg white
Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker until frothy. Add ice and shake again until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and enjoy!