How to Cook a Chinese Herbal Formula

With many aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there are many
ways to get results. When it comes to the cooking of raw herbs for medicinal teas, there are many methods that all serve to draw out the therapeutic qualities from the herbs. The following represents a few of the possible methods for cooking your Chinese herbal formula.

The Pot

The best pot is ceramic. Glass/pyrex is also good. It is important that your pot has a lid. Materials to avoid include cast iron or metals. Chinese herbs can interact with these metals casing chemical reactions that can alter the therapeutic qualities of your herbs, or worse yet, have an unhealthy effect on you. Stainless steel is better than the other metals. Teflon coatings are not recommended.


In ancient times the source of the water used in the tea was an important issue. Some teas required water from a spring, others called for water collecting during a rain. Nowadays, any drinking water is acceptable. The purity and cleanliness of the water you chose is a personal choice, however I would suggest not using unfiltered tap water if you have the option.


First soak the herbs, placing the herbs into water. The water should cover the herbs by about an inch and a half. Let them first sit for 20-30 minutes without heat. Some sources suggest allowing the herbs to absorb the room-temperature water for one hour.

Bring the water to a rolling boil. Then, turn down the fire to a low simmer.

There is a great deal of variation in the time necessary to cook herbs. It depends mostly on the kind of herbs you're cooking and the therapeutic goal. The average is 30 minutes. Diaphoretics (sweat inducing herbs) are cooked for no more than 15 minutes. Aromatics only get steeped for 5 minutes. For tonic herbs, 40 to 50 minutes is appropriate. Avoid lifting the lid but check it periodically to be sure you have not cooked off your water.

Strain the tea into a large jar or other container.

Cook the same herbs a second time

During the first steeping, the temperature energetic comes out of the herb. This effects the patient mostly at the Qi level. It is more superficial, more Yang in nature. During the second steeping, the taste energetics comes out of the herb. This effects the patient more on the Blood level. This has more of an impact internally. Mix the tea from both batches for drinking.

After the second steeping and the two batches have been combined, drink one quarter of the amount in the morning and another quarter in the evening. Repeat the next day.

If you find the taste disagreeable, then your tongue is working right. However, if you find the taste so unpalatable that you don't drink it, then you need to do something to make it more drinkable. I suggest watering it down a bit. This helps a great deal. Also, it seems that after time, the body begins to crave a certain formula, especially the ones that help the body and you'll find the taste to be more attractive. Some people add a little honey to sweeten it. This should only be done with the consent of your herbalist. Honey can adversely affect the therapeutic qualities of the formula and so it should only be added when appropriate.

A third cooking can be done after letting the herbs soak in more water over night. This is a good idea if you will be taking herbs for a long time and would like to get more out of the herbs. Just refill to about one inch above the herbs, let soak for at least six hours or overnight, cook, and that tea will be drunk over one day.

Storing your herbs

Storing herbs should be treated like food. Decoctions can be left out in a cool kitchen or refrigerated but must be rewarmed before drinking.

When to take your herbs

Generally, as a rule, it is best to take your herb tea one hour before eating, on an empty stomach. This provides the best absorption of the ingredients of the herbs. If the herbs cause a little stomach upset, drink the herb tea one hour after eating, or drink some fresh ginger juice before taking the formula if the tea causes nausea. Fresh ginger is the sweet little slices of root often served with sushi. Tonification formulas are best taken on an empty stomach.

Again, most herbal formulas should be taken warm or hot.

Drinking herbal formulas can be quite a strange way to administer medicine, particularly in a culture that is use to taking pills to get better. But my experience says that those people who are willing to try something different and bear with the unfamiliar tastes and odors do adapt, reaping the benefits of Chinese herbal decoctions that pills and powders may not be strong enough to address.