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How to extract oils from plants

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If you’ve ever made candles or soap, or even just wanted plant oils for a fragrant bath, you’ve most likely seen the sometimes ridiculous price of plant oils. Lemongrass oil is currently available from between £5 to £10 for a paltry 10ml.Why both paying that much, when you can do it yourself at home for much less?

There are a few ways to extract oils from plants. Firstly, you need to identify your plant, and then you need to research what part of the plant yields the oil. For lemongrass, it’s the leaves. It’s also my favourite and the one I have most experience with, but the theory is applicable to all suitable plants.

You can extract the oil a number of ways;

• Hot
• Cold
• Alcohol
• Steam Distilled

These all yield mixtures that are perfect for specific purposes.

Hot - Water
For this, you need a pan, water, and your plant. Chop it up and whack it in the pan. Boil a kettle and pour this into it. Boil the mixture quickly for a minute and then pour the lot into a jar – close this tight and wrap the lot in clingfilm (in case the jar breaks). Leave this to steep until it’s come back to room temperature and you have a lemongrass infusion. You can strain this and use it in tea or to add a hint of Thai to your cooking.

Hot - Oil
You will need to set up double boiler; put water in the bottom part and (extra) virgin olive oil in the top. Wash your lemongrass and dry it thoroughly – you do not want any water to stay on it. Chop it up finely and place into the oil. Turn on the heat so that the water is simmering gently and leave it to run for about 2 hours – topping up the water if necessary. You can leave it in longer if you like; in fact the longer the better.

Once you’ve finished and it’s cooled down, strain the oil to extract the plant matter. You can use this oil as a fragrance, in a bath, in a candle or even as massage oil. I’ve personally used it in candles and soap. If you want to add lemon flavour to a particular dish, you can even use it to cook with.

Cold - Oil
This is fairly simple; cut up your plant, stick it into some oil in a jar, shake, and leave to infuse over a period of time (the longer the better). You can use olive oil for this again. After about 2 weeks, take the mixture, shake it, blend it, and then leave to infuse again. Make sure the jar is in a cool, dark place as light will affect the infusion process. After you’ve done this, take the mixture and strain it to remove the plant matter – the remaining oil can be used for everything I outlined above.

Using alcohol to extract plant oils is fairly easy – you just need to make sure you use as high quality alcohol as possible. I’d recommend vodka for this extraction as it won’t impact the scent or the flavour of the plant. Chop your plant up and put it in a jar; then add vodka as required. Leave this in a cool, dark place for a week.

Then blend the mixture and repeat the process. After another week, strain it, and store in a sealable jar – for this it’s probably easiest to use a bottle, as this mixture is going to be best for making funky cocktails, although you can use it to cook and as a fragrance as well.

Steam Distillation
By far, the best method for extracting the most oil from plants is steam distillation. This is how it’s done when you buy it in a shop, and it is damned hard to do at home. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done – you just have to be adventurous. If you use a pressure cooker, some copper tube, a bucket full of ice and a jar, you can repeatedly extract oils like this on your hob for a one off £75 investment.

I’ve put up another article outlining how you can set this apparatus up at home as it’s quite tricky. For the purpose of oil extraction, when you’ve used it, you’ll collect a water/oil mixture. This mixture will contain the most oils of the plant you’ve used. Some of the oils may be less dense than water and you can collect them by skimming the surface. The others will be dissolved into the water and will not be easy to separate, but they’re still useable as I outlined above.

So why go spend lots of money on something you can whip up at home? It’s cheapest in the long term and you’ll end up with lots more oil to use. If you’re frugal or like the thought of homemade gifts, then this is perfect for you. Whip up some oil for a massage and give a loved one a treat.

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