I wrote a little review article of Nighty Night tea the other day and it made me think about this question of tisane. Many people wonder about the difference between a tisane and a tea. Well, really, its a question of semantics. What we call an herbal tea does not contain any tea leaves, so some people who are perhaps overly married to semantics like to insist on calling them tisanes. You don’t brew a chamomile tea, you brew a chamomile tisane. But we colloquially call anything we brew from leaves, flowers, roots, barks, etc. teas.
Tea Can Mean a Tisane or a Decoction
The word tea was expaned to include both tisanes, or herbal infusions, and decoctions, long ago. If you’re like me, you’re quite satisfied with this state of affairs. But, these exotic and sometimes technical sounding terms, can still be confusing.
A Tea is an Infusion
First of all, if you are wondering about infusions or something “being infused,” I’ve already written up a piece on the definition. Teas, tisanes, and decoctions are all infusions. When something is infused, it generally means that a plant material of some kind has been boiled in water or soaked in something that acts as a solvent, such as alcohol, so that some of it’s flavor and elements have been extracted into the liquid.
I don’t want the term solvent to throw a wrench in the works. A solvent is just a liquid that is able to dissolve other substances. You know that you can dissolve salt or sugar in water, so water itself is a solvent. You also know that both salt and sugar will dissolve faster in hot water, so hot water is a stronger solvent than cold water, and alcohol is generally stronger still. From here, things get very because not all that which is soluble is able to be dissolved in any solvent. For example, some things are only fat soluble, but none of this matters for our discussion.
What is a Tisane?
Generally, tisane, which is sometimes spelled ptisan, is a word used for an herbal infusion, or, in other words, an herbal tea. Originally, it referred to these types of drinks used for medicinal purposes. The term tisane originated from the Greek word ptisane, which referred to a drink made from barley. Now, it can mean any sort of herbal, or indeed, grain-based tea and although the medicinal or beneficial properties of any common tisane may be taken more seriously in some parts of the world, the same words can be used no matter your intentions for drinking them. You will find, though, that most herbal teas marketed as tisanes tend to push their medicinal properties, rather than taste.
Tisane is a general term for herbal tea, but but certain herbs are favored more often than others, depending on the country. For example La Tisaniere French Tisane is a mixture of herbs which contains one herb that seems to be very common to French tisane, verbena (or lemon verbena), along anise, lemon balm, and mint, used as a after-dinner digestive.
Decoctions can also be called teas, and they are also made from plants. In fact, a decoction may be made from the same plant as a tisane. The difference is usually in the time span and method of extraction, and more importantly, the plant parts being extracted. Whereas a tisane or simple herbal tea is made by steeping leaves, flowers, and other soft parts in very hot water for up to ten minutes or so, decoctions are used for tougher more fibrous part of a plant such as the roots, bark, and depending on what plant, dried seeds. Instead of a familiar steep in hot water, these parts are simmered in water for up to 45 minutes (and sometimes even longer). As fancy as the terminology seems, there is nothing very complicated about it. Simply speaking, it takes longer to make extractions from hard fibrous plant parts, so the water must be kept hot for a long period of time in order to break down the cellulose enough to infuse the water. Sometimes, the same roots and/or barks will be simmered twice, and the two resulting liquid extractions will be mixed.
At times, decoctions are made out of leaves and other herbal materials normally used in teas, because a stronger solution is desired for medicinal purposes. This is done when taste is not a consideration. However, in this case, a tincture might also be made, which is a very strong and concentrated extact made with a stronger solvent, such as alcohol, glycerin, or vinegar. Usually, a tincture is made from a single herb rather than a mixture of herbs and then different tinctures are mixed together, if desired. Here, we are going way past tea into herbalism, so I’ll leave it at that.
Herbal Teas Require Longer Steeping Times
One problem with thinking of tisanes as teas, I must admit, is that many herbs require a longer steeping time than actual tea leaves. Some need up to ten minutes, or at least could benefit from this extended steeping time. So, if you are new to herbal teas and you don’t find they have the flavor your expected, or they don’t do what they are claimed to do, such as to help you relax or soothe your aching belly, it may be that you didn’t let them soak in the hot water long enough. For the most part, go for a good five minutes for most herbs, but if you buy herbal tea bags or other packaged herbs for brewing, read the instructions for brewing on the package, with will probably provide recommended steeping times.