I love reverse-engineering.
(Heck… I wrote an entire e-book by reverse-engineering store-bought condiments – I must love it!)
But the day I realized I could reverse engineer our favorite Swiss-made herbal cough drops, I just about swooned.
And fortunately, they're easy. They do take a bit of time and they do take a bit of forethought if you don't already have the herbs on hand, but when you get to actually making them, they're pretty darn simple. Thankfully, that's just my style.
The recipe is customizable, too, so feel free to substitute other herbs you feel would work well for you in your particular situation. For example, if your child is fighting flu-like symptoms, you may want to up the elder flowers, or if you're pregnant, you may want to skip the hyssop and horehound. Use whatever works for your situation – just remember that herbs can be powerful and potent, so ask an herbalist if you've got any questions.
FRUGAL TIP: None of these herbs are terribly expensive, but even little things can add up. If you want to make these cough drops as inexpensively as possible, choose just 1 herb to use or use half the amount of herbs to steep the decoction. Even just plain honey without herbs can be soothing to suck on when you have a sore throat, so feel free to minimize this recipe if needed!
We have an herb-free homemade cough syrup if you'd prefer!
Also, our friends Tamara and Kelly came up with this fantastic natural cough remedy that you rub on your feet. And yes, it works! (Talk about a great way to soothe sniffly babies…)
Homemade Cough Drops
2 1/2 cups dried herbs (see below for one recommended blend)
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups honey
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
10 drops peppermint essential oil
5 drops lemon essential oil
5 drops menthol (where to buy menthol)
1-2 tablespoons butter (in case honey begins to scorch)
50 grams slippery elm bark powder (~1 cup) (where to buy slippery elm bark)
Cough, Cold, and Flu Herb Blend:
25 grams elder flowers (~2/3 cup) (where to buy elder flowers)
15 grams horehound (~1/2 cup) (where to buy horehound)
10 grams hyssop (~1/2 cup) (where to buy hyssop)
5 grams lemon balm (~1/4 cup) (where to buy lemon balm)
10 grams spearmint (~1/2 cup) – optional (where to buy spearmint)
Stir water and dried herbs together in a large saucepan, then bring to a steady simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
Remove the decoction from the heat (yes, that's a word) and let sit until it's cool enough to touch. Strain off 1 cup of liquid, squeezing the herbs if necessary.
Return liquid to the heat in a clean, wide saucepan. Add the honey and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir frequently and continue to cook until the liquid reaches 300° (hard-crack stage), a process that can take more than 1 hour, depending on the size of your pan. Watch the syrup very carefully toward the end, lowering the heat if necessary and stirring constantly to prevent burning. If you smell scorching before the syrup has reached 300°, stir in 1 tablespoon of butter to help stabilize it. Stir in the essential oils and the menthol (if using) just as the syrup reaches 300°.
Grease a baking sheet with the olive oil ahead of time and have it sitting at the ready. When the syrup is at hard-crack, pour the syrup into the baking sheet, and let it cool just until it can be handled by hand. Using greased hands, roll the syrup into lozenges and set aside on a lightly greased plate to harden completely.
If you live in a very moist climate, your cough drops may weep. (Don't ask me how I know…. ::sigh:: ) In that case, dredge them generously in slippery elm bark powder before moving them to long-term storage or change the recipe to use half honey and half brown rice syrup, which is less prone to softening when exposed to humidity.
Store in an air-tight jar. Keeps for 3-6 months in dry conditions.
Know Your Herbs
Native Americans have used various parts of the elderberry tree to treat fevers and joint pain for hundreds of years, but elderberry's real claim to fame is as a cure for the flu. According to Mountain Rose Herbs, Israeli researchers have developed five separate formulas based on the elderberry that have been clinically proven to prevent and ward off all kinds of influenza AND elder berries are known to be effective against eight strains of influenza [emphasis mine], which suggests that elder might even surpass vaccines for efficacy in preventing the flu.
Horehound is in the mint family, but has a distinctively bitter taste. Its role here is as an expectorant and mild pain reliever, which are only effective if the bitter taste is present, interestingly enough. Also, if you use exclusively horehound in this recipe, it can help with nocturnal acid reflux, as it stimulates the release of phlegm, gastric acid, and other mucuses.
Hyssop is also part of the mint family and is used in herbal medicine to excrete excesses of fluids or mucus and as a vasodilator, thus assisting with breathing problems, such as asthma. Thus, I've included it in this recipe as an excellent expectorant and to help relax the laryngeal muscles if coughing has been excessive. It is an especially potent herb and is not recommended while pregnant or by anyone prone to seizure.
Lemon balm is yet another mint, this one with a distinctly lemony scent. In these cough drops, lemon balm provides a pleasant flavor and relief for itchy throats. If the cold is accompanied by fever, lemon balm will assist in breaking the fever, as well. It's also a mild anti-viral herb, so it can help ward off a cold if taken early.
Peppermint Essential Oil, Lemon Essential Oil, & Menthol
The essential oil of peppermint is known for easing digestion and helping with respiratory issues. I've added it, however, largely for the clean, fresh taste that helps offset the bitter edge, and for the vapor aroma that can help clear stuffy nasal passages. Lemon Oil is refreshing, invigorating, and tasty. Menthol is a natural topical pain reliever, so is helpful if the throat is painful due to excessive coughing or hoarseness, but it also is vastly useful as a decongestant.
Use all sparingly.
As I wrote in my original cough syrup recipe, honey is soothing, tasty, and coats the throat. Raw honey, especially, is packed with nutrients and enzymes and is a powerful antiviral and antibacterial substance, although in this recipe we take it to such a high temperature that most of those benefits are lost.
The beauty of the honey in this recipe is that it sweetens the drops (absolutely necessary with the bitter herbs!) and due to its sugar content, can be a natural substitute for refined sugar syrup in the candy-making process that makes these cough drops turn out like hard candies. Even the commercial brand of throat drops I reverse-engineered for these homemade cough drops uses sugar syrup, but honestly, the honey is so much more soothing on an achy throat.
Slippery Elm Bark Powder
Slippery elm bark powder turns into a sweet, mucilaginous slurry when combined with water and relieves inflammation and irritation in the throat superbly. While not an official ingredient in these drops, slippery elm is quite helpful if you need to keep your cough drops from sticking together (and don't want to take the time to individually wrap 100 lozenges in parchment paper) and its healing properties certainly offer a welcome addition to the goodness of these drops.
It has occurred to me (and this is completely untested, so please leave a review if you try this!) that if slippery elm is unavailable, acerola cherry powder might also make a good dredging option. Acerola powder is the most potent and concentrated source of Vitamin C currently known and might offer a desirable flavor. Again – just an idea. Let me know if it works (or is a horrible disaster…)
One note about boiling the herbs – typically the technique of boiling is reserved for hard plant materials, such as roots and wood, while softer materials, such as leaves, are treated more gently by steeping them for long periods of time.
The reason I call for boiling the leaves in this recipe rather than steeping is specifically to extract the bitter, healing elements. Yes, the herbs' water-soluble vitamins are lost because of this, but for our purposes, the herbs are much more potent when the bitter elements are present – especially in the case of horehound – so simmer away guilt-free. And don't worry – considering we're pairing the herbal extract with a super-sweet honey syrup, the bitterness won't be overwhelming.
If you'd prefer, you can infuse the herbs overnight: Place the dried herbs in a bowl and set aside. Boil the water, then pour over the herbs. Cover the bowl with a plate or lid and let sit for 8-10 hours. Strain well and continue as directed.
Here's to your health! May joy and good health be nourished in your home!
This post has been shared at Simple Lives Thursday.