Herbal infusions – maximum strength
September 17, 2020 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I want to use enough liquid to extract as much flavor as possible, while using as little liquid as possible.

I’m making drinking shrub concentrates; which are infusions of various herbs/spices in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and water. Sometimes the concentrated infusion is made with a “cold soak” and other times I boil the liquid before adding the other ingredients.

Given these variables, it’s impossible to come up with a set formula that will work for every possibility. It would be lovely if there were a way to measure for maximum concentration, but I don’t think that exists.

So, I’m looking for information on optimizing this as much as possible. Some kind of experiment I might do. (This is your cue to jump in with ideas, pleasethankyou, mindful of the caveat below.)

Special note: Just following other’s recipes is *not* at all what I’m interested because I have no way to evaluate if they are doing anything better than “cutting off the end of the roast”.
posted by dancing leaves to Food & Drink (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you can spend a little money, a commercial-grade whipped cream dispenser can be used to infuse liquids. When you activate the gas canister, the extreme pressure created inside the device destroys all the cells of the item you're infusing, releasing all the flavor-y bits much more efficiently than the methods you're using. With this method, you can also repeatedly infuse a solution by straining out the spent flavorants and adding more ingredients to the liquid, in order to make it as concentrated as possible. And since this method uses no heat, it's ideal for anything with volatile aromatic compounds, which is most herbs.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:19 AM on September 17, 2020 [7 favorites]

Assuming you're looking for flavor extraction, you're right that there's no one path. Even in extracting flavor from herbs, you've got a couple paths that will produce different results based on the primary chemical that makes up the flavor of that particular herb. For example, Basil is notoriously hard to extract flavor from, whereas cilantro is pretty easy. The easiest, least technical ways I've found to extract flavors (primarily for cocktails, but same deal really) are nitro muddling, no2 extraction, and making essential oils with a still.

This would be a great question for Dave Arnold over at his Cooking Issues podcast. Even though its geared towards cocktails, his book Liquid Intelligence has lots of different flavor extraction methods for eventually getting something into a drink.

Flavor extraction is very much a case by case proposition.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:20 AM on September 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

These aren't really home solutions, but sometimes VERY well stocked, upscale commisary kitchens have access to rotovap and ultrasonic infusion machines. These are very expensive, and have a STEEP learning curve, but the results scale accordingly.

There's some folks on youtube doing DIY ultrasonic infusions, but even the hardware side of that scares this DIY nerd off of the project.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you can identify the major organic molecule you're trying to extract (example; thymol from thyme), even the wikipedia entry will have the max solubilty in water posted under 'properties.'

For most organic molecules, you should be able to find solubility in various alcohols. Rarely, there might even be solubility in various oils reported as well.

You can also look up thermo lability to inform whether using heat in the extraction process is appropriate or not.

A lot of the organic molecules of interest are solvents in their own right; fractional distillation (be it heat/ vacuum) could get you up in the 80%+ range. But the %recovery and purity without really good equipment is going to be direly disappointing - it depends on what other volatiles are present in your starting material, and whether you want all of the other volatiles as well.

How to measure the concentration of your solution after extraction, though... that's in the realm of HPLC or GC/MS.

For most things, you could theoretically get up to 95%+ w/w through preparative HPLC, but then you're looking at synthetics on a cost/ unit quantity scale instead, and you'd probably want to be making at least hundreds of liters of it per year (and actually require this level of purity) for this route to be worth it.
posted by porpoise at 2:14 PM on September 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

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