How To Substitute Herbs In Recipes

How To Substitute Herbs In Recipes | Growing Up Herbal | Missing an herb in a remedy? Here's how to substitute one herb for another.

What do you do when you have most of the herbs in a recipe, but not all of them? Does that mean you can’t make it? Can you use everything else and leave the one you don’t have out, or will that mess it up? Can you substitute an herb you have into the recipe to take the place of the one you don’t have?

Have you ever found yourself in this situation and asked yourself these same questions? If so, today I have some answers for you!

This recently happened to me as I was working on a new project for you. What! A new project? Yes… you heard (or read) me right! I’ve been secretly working on something new for you. I think you’re gonna love it so stay tuned. I’ll be sharing more about it a few weeks.

Anyway, as I was working on a specific remedy for this project, I found myself lacking a certain herb. Now, in most remedies I’ve come across, it’s not that big of a deal when I’m missing one ingredient. I simply replace the herb I’m missing with another fitting herb (more on that later), but for this recipe, the herb I was missing was one that was difficult to substitute as it’s a very specific ingredient in the formula. Thankfully, though, I did find an herb that could be substituted without compromising the effectiveness of the remedy!

So, as I was dealing with this issue, I thought I’d share how I substitute herbs in remedies with you in case you ever come across this problem yourself.

How To Substitute Herbs In Remedies

When you’re looking to substitute one herb for another in a remedy, there are two things you need to do first.

  1. First, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of the missing herb in this formula?” This will tell you the herb’s action in the formula.
  2. Second, you need to find out what the herb’s energetics are. The energetics of an herb are the way it brings about balance in the body. Most times, energetics center around whether an herb is warming or cooling, moistening or drying.

Once you have answers to those questions, the next thing you need to do is find a list of other herbs with that same action and then narrow those choices down to those with similar energetics.

It’s pretty simple, but just in case you’re confused because you’re new to all of this (I can totally relate to that), let me give you an example.

Substitution In Action: An Example

Below is a recipe from my studies at the Herbal Academy. It’s for a headache remedy that I’m wanting to make, and I’m lacking one of the herbs.

Headache-ease Tincture

Ingredients:

Dosage:

Take 1 teaspoon at first sign of a headache. Continue with 1/2 teaspoon every hour until symptoms subside.

Substitutions:

In the above recipe, I’m lacking crampbark and blue vervain. Both of these herbs help with muscle tension and are antispasmodics.

Now right off the top of my head, I remembered that crampbark is very similar to valerian in its action (antispasmodic), its energetics (drying and warming), and its smell (STINKY!) so I knew that I could simply double the valerian and that would be fine until I get more crampbark.

As for the blue vervain… I needed to do more research because I’ve never used that herb before. First, I went to my Taste of Herbs: Flavor Wheel to check out herbs with similar energetics to blue vervain. First I found the bitter herbs, then found the herbs that were dry and cooling. These herbs happened to be relaxing nervines, most of which were also antispasmodics and included vervain, motherwort, skullcap, and California poppy. Out of those 4 herbs… I only had California poppy so I looked that herb up. It’s cooling and bitter so it would work well energetically, it’s an antispasmodic and analgesic herb so that would match up action-wise, and it’s to be avoided in those with cooler constitutions and pregnancy. Seeing as how I’m not pregnant, and I’m a pitta constitution (hot and fiery baby), it looks like this would be a great herb to substitute in here.

Substituting Herbs In Herbal Remedies Is Possible

So there you go. If you’re missing an herb, it doesn’t mean you can’t make the remedy you’re looking at making. It simply means you need to find another herb that will take the place of the missing herb.

When you start looking into herbal actions and energetics, it becomes much easier to substitute one herb for another and still come out with an effective remedy that will give you the results you’re looking for. And if you have trouble with this part, don’t beat yourself up over it. Herbalism takes a lifetime to learn. Just start. practice, try new things out and see how it works for you… you’ll be glad you did! Eventually, it won’t be so overwhelming. Just be sure to have fun dabbling and playing with plants!

Have you ever substituted herbs in a remedy? If so, did you follow any specific methods or just wing it? How’d it turn out? Leave your comments below, and if you have questions about this post, ask away! I’ll do my best to let you know what I know!

9 thoughts on “How To Substitute Herbs In Recipes”

  1. I am new to herbs. The title has the word tincture. I thought a tincture was where you add the herbs to vodka. Am I missing something? Do you use the herbs dry?

    1. You’re absolutely right Sue. A tincture is when you soak herbs in any drinking alcohol for a period of time. In this article, I’m talking about how to substitute herbs in any recipe, whether it’s a tea, a tincture, or a powdered capsule. The example used in the post is for a remedy for tension headaches, and yes, it is a tincture.

      When it comes to tinctures, as a general rule, you can use fresh or dried herbs, but if you want your tincture to be a “standardized tincture” – as in, you’re getting a certain amount of herbal properties in a certain amount of liquid… where dosages are exact – you would used dried herbs sometimes and fresh herbs other times. It all depends on the herb. No matter what you do, you’re tincture will have herbal properties in it and it will work. You may just have to play with the dosage a bit… taking more or less to achieve your results if you don’t make your tinctures standardized. At least that’s my understanding of all of this. Hope I didn’t confuse you more!!

      Just for the record… I almost always use dried herbs in my tinctures. As I grow and wildcraft more herbs, I’m learning to make fresh tinctures, but that’s not all that often.

    1. I got it from Learning Herb’s Taste of Herbs course, but that course isn’t open right now. And yes, I use it ALL the time! Love it! I think you can get it free online or at least an image of it. I’m not sure. I have a huge printout of it that came with the course. I’m sure you could google “taste of herbs flavor wheel” and find it. Hope that helps!

  2. Pingback: 9 Ways To Use Valerian, Valeriana officinalis | Herbal Academy of New England

  3. Pingback: Herbal Academy » 9 Ways To Use Valerian, Valeriana officinalis

  4. That’s so interesting that you use mostly dry herbs when making tinctures.
    I am just the opposite, most of the time. As a traditional herbalist, I try, whenever possible
    to use herbs that are local to my ‘growing area’ so I can either grow them, ethically pick them from the wilds, or trade them with friends who do grow them.
    That flavor wheel is a great idea. I have taken that course twice, and will again. It’s excellent.
    Personally, although I recognize that energetics are a part of a formula, there are many times
    that I prefer to focus on the constituents and properties when choosing an alternate.
    All in all.. an excellent explanation. It comes down to “what do I want to achieve, here”
    when we are making a formula. Sometimes, a “simple” is also just fabulous!
    Green blessings..

    1. I think using dried herbs only started because I was new to herbs, and I didn’t know how to identify or grow them in my area. I also didn’t know of any herbalists that live close to me. In the past year or so, I have met a friend that I exchange herbs with to transplant in my yard. She’s been super helpful with helping me grow my own. Using more fresh herbs is a new area for me, but I’m excited to explore it more.

      I think you’re right with the substituting based on constituents and properties too, Carol. I like to throw energetics in as well because I feel like it gets me even closer to what I want to achieve with my formula. I feel confident with herbal actions, I’m still learning about energetics, but I still feel like I’m scratching the surface of constituents. I understand a bit about them, but I’m sure there’s much more for me to learn in that area. I mainly focus on constituents when I’m trying to find the best preparation for a particular group of herbs. And yes, I agree that simples are a great way to go, but I feel like I prefer more “well-rounded” formulas for bigger things. Simples are much easier though so maybe I should look into those more. Thanks for your comments! I always appreciate your experienced point of view! Thank you!

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