Herbal tea. Yawn, right? Bear with me here, because that’s what I thought until recently. Not that herbal tea will ever be a thrilling, challenging culinary project, but if you think it’s fun to search out sort-of-hard-to-find ingredients now and then and to tinker with mixtures, you might want to give tisanes a second thought.
So What is a Tisane?
Let’s get something straight: herbal tea is not actually tea at all — unless it has Camellia sinensis in it, which it most likely doesn’t. Nearly everything one might call an herbal tea is actually a tisane or an infusion. Sounds cooler already, right?
For the longest time, bagged “herbal teas” were just something I drank when I wasn’t feeling well (mint), couldn’t sleep (chamomile) or was — shudder! — off caffeine for a bit (Lemon Zinger). They were the consolation prize of beverages; the only reason I drank one was because something wasn’t right.
But then. I was lucky enough to have one of the loveliest and most delicious dinners of my life here, and at the end of the meal I was asked if I wanted an espresso or perhaps a tisane. There was something so soothing about the way the waiter said that word tisane, making an espresso seem way too harsh to sip at the end of such a meal, that I thought, “What the hey? Live a little. Have an herbal tea!”
A minute later the waiter set down this tiny, clear glass pot filled with hot water and the most vividly green, sturdy leaves of verbena and mint that I’d ever seen. Let me be clear — we’re not talking a few leaves and mostly water, or even one of those ball-strainer things packed tightly with leaves. We’re talking fistfuls of large, loose leaves floating beautifully in this clear water. And so unbelievably green! Like a teapot full to the brim with fresh-off-the-boil springtime.
Moving on. Tisanes have a few things going for them; to wit:
First, you can’t really over-steep one. I mean, if you left one to steep overnight, it might not taste that great the next day. But I’ve made a pot of fresh peppermint tisane, left the leaves in the water while I drank my first cup, and found that when I poured a second cup 30 minutes later it tasted just fine. Stronger for sure, but definitely not unpleasant. Not at all like what happens when you leave your green tea leaves in the water for 30 seconds too long.
Second, you don’t need to be precise. I’ve alluded to my dislike of precision in the kitchen before, but now I’m just going to say it: I am not a measurer. Why bother with 1/8 of a teaspoon and ¼ of a cup when a pinch and a handful will get the job done? This is also probably why I don’t have the patience for pourover coffee brewing. You want me to use a scale AND a timer? I think I hear my French press calling.
Anyway, tisanes don’t require precisely measured ingredients. Sure, you could measure out your dried hibiscus flowers if doing so gives you peace of mind, but I tend to simply eyeball the quantities and have not yet once brewed something I couldn’t drink.
Third, tisanes are made for tinkerers. Wikipedia lists nearly 100 different ingredients used in tisanes around the world. So basically, if it’s in your spice rack or growing in your kitchen garden, you can put it in a pot of just-off-the-boil water and see how you like the taste.
Maybe today you feel like a basil-leaf tisane. Maybe tomorrow night you’ll add dried lemon peel to that and then the next day maybe it’s just the dried lemon peel and a slice of fresh ginger … There’s really no wrong way to do this.
When I first read that Wikipedia list, I realized how very unadventurous I am when it comes to my tisane ingredients. That said, here are the ones I most commonly rotate through:
- Lemon verbena leaves (fresh or dried)
- Mint leaves (usually peppermint, but spearmint works, too)
- Basil leaves (fresh)
- Dried lemon peel
- Dried orange peel
- Dried lavender
- Whole black peppercorns
- Whole coriander seeds
- Cinnamon sticks
- Rose hips (dried)
- Hibiscus flowers (dried)
- Fresh ginger
- Thyme (fresh or dried)
- Rosemary (fresh or dried)
- Nettles (fresh or dried)
I’ve started to amass enough jars filled with these ingredients that I feel a bit like an old-timey apothecary when I’m in the kitchen after dinner, throwing a handful of this and a pinch of that into my teapot.
There’s a creativity to making a tisane that’s really fun and really forgiving, and the end result is a cup of something warm and wholesome that’ll make you feel better when things aren’t going right — or even when everything is already just dandy.
Below, you’ll find two of my standby tisane “recipes” to get you started. I should probably mention that most tisanes are just as delicious served iced. And if you’re in a gift-giving mood, mixing up a custom blend for someone seems especially thoughtful, doesn’t it?
- 1 part rose hips
- 2 parts hibiscus flowers
- 1 sliver dried lemon peel
Place all ingredients in your teapot. Bring a kettle of water to boil, then allow to rest off the heat for a minute or so. Pour as much water into your teapot as you need, then let your tisane steep for a few minutes. Pour through a strainer and enjoy.
Lemon verbena-mint tisane
- 2 handfuls lemon verbena leaves
- 2 handfuls mint leaves
Place all ingredients in your teapot. Bring a kettle of water to boil, then allow to rest off the heat for a minute or so. Pour as much water into your teapot as you need, then let your tisane steep for a few minutes. Pour and enjoy.