Incense Crafting: Messy Experimentation

Hopefully you’ve figured out by now that I’m into incense… it’s a pretty big deal for me. I’m not an aromatherapist; I just know how certain scents can make me feel and I want to share that joy with the world around me.

I used to buy stick incense at head shops, and burn them so my house would smell nice. I admit many of the scents were a bit sharp smelling and often caused me to sneeze. I learned recently that it’s because MANY of the commercial stick incenses you can buy are made with chemical scents and oils rather than the actual herb they are supposed to be imitating. I find that burning my own incense made from ACTUAL herbs and not a bunch of fillers or chemical scents is a completely different experience that often brings out emotions I didn’t expect, or makes me feel more grounded and connected to the earth.

I started delving into making my own incense blends a few years ago, but I really got serious about it when I took a course through the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. I highly recommend Evan’s courses! While I went into the courses knowing the power of many herbs, those classes helped me dive into a deeper understanding of the herbs I already loved, and discover many more. I also learned some good tricks to boost my crafting skills, and I feel like the herbs themselves are still teaching me every time I work with them.

A loose incense blend, or burning a single plant by itself, is the most intimate form of incense burning one can experience. After lighting a chunk of charcoal and allowing it to burn enough to have formed a thin layer of ash on top, you can begin sprinkling your loose incense on it and inhale the intoxicating aroma of real dried herbs. You have to pay attention to it more closely because the charcoal burns through the herbs fairly quickly, requiring you to sprinkle more onto it to continue creating smoke. This isn’t a bad thing, however, as it makes your mind and senses more aware of the subtleties in the blend. Perhaps a bit more mugwort in this pinch, or that pinch had an abundance of sage. Every scent is different and can evoke a different feeling in your consciousness.

Whenever possible, I work with materials that I have either grown or foraged myself. There are some things that I do have to buy in, such as sandalwood or makko powder, cloves, cinnamon, and my binding powder. But I forage/grow and dry my own sage, white sage, patchouli, mugwort, white pine, cedar, juniper, and many other aromatic plant materials. I often experiment with different scents; more often than not, even the most alluring aromatic plant smells very different when it is slowly burning into ash!

My table becomes a messy work station when I’m crafting

Cone incense and stick incense require the herbs to be ground much more finely in order to stick together properly. A binding agent is added, and then water, and the blend is mixed until it forms a dough.

About to blend this

While I am mixing and kneading this into dough, I project my feelings and intentions into the herbs, asking them as they blend to create those same feelings for the person that ends up burning them. Often, I will have music playing that evokes a certain feeling in me personally, such as relaxation, being soothed, happiness, or excitement. My hope is that the same emotions I am feeling so strongly while I knead get incorporated into the dough, to be expelled later into the person who burns it. For this reason I do not make incense when I’m angry or highly distracted. That means most of my crafting happens when the kids aren’t around.

After adding water and binder

From here, depending on how much time I have, I will either mould this into cones or sticks, or set it back in the bowl and into the refrigerator to allow the herbs to get to know each other a little better for a day or so before I shape them. I have only recently started making dhoop incense, which is basically stick incense without a bamboo skewer inside. Please bear with me if you see me selling incense stick that are less than perfectly straight– I’m an artisan, not an engineer!

If you are interested in seeing more of my process and the things I create, I suggest you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, as I frequently post photos of whatever I am working on.

What kinds of plants do YOU like to burn? Have you ever made incense before?

Hot Cocoa Could Be Healthier

My kids love hot cocoa. Pretty sure EVERY kid loves hot cocoa, at least in the Northern United States. But most of what I can find here in Northeast Connecticut is Swiss Miss or some other knock off brand that’s like 80% sugar and preservatives. Sure, it tastes good, but enough of it will probably turn you diabetic.

I know this isn’t a food blog, and I mostly talk about herbs. Guess what? Cacao is a healthy plant if you eat it right! It contains antioxidants and this lovely thing called phenethylamine, which triggers the feel-good center of the brain. So is cayenne pepper, a warming herb (much desired on cold snowy days!) I am aware that most Mexican hot cocoas have chili powder in them rather than cayenne, but I can’t find chili powder that doesn’t also contain salt for some reason, so I use a bit of cayenne.

Cacao VS Cocoa FYI

As per usual, I didn’t think this would make a good blog subject until AFTER I had already made it, so my packages are all open and I don’t have steps of the process, nor did I EXACTLY measure ingredients out. I hardly ever do… so bear with me.

Instead of buying the cheap prepackaged cocoa packets from the store, I mix my own hot cocoa. My kids, thankfully, actually PREFER mine (when their friends aren’t looking,) so I get them to eat a tad healthier on my time.

I mix about 3/4 cup unsweetened cacao powder, a heaping 1/2 cup of white granulated sugar (you can use a healthier sugar like turbinado if you want; I just didn’t have any in my cupboard today,) a dash of cayenne powder (about 1/4 tsp at the most) and 3/4 of a bar of dark chocolate all chopped up. Just whisk this all together and pour into a jar with a lid. When you want cocoa, you can use either hot milk or hot water. Most of the time, we put a big scoop of cocoa mix into the mug, pour a few tablespoons worth of heavy cream on top, and then just fill the rest of the cup with boiling water. Mixing with a spoon is critical; marshmallows are optional. Note: If you taste it and think it needs to be sweeter, just add a little more sugar to your jar and give it a good shake.

Jumping up on my soap box for a moment: I bought this chocolate bar at Big Y on sale for $3. Yes, it’s more expensive than a Hershey bar, but it’s much higher quality, fair trade, and sustainably sourced. That means no small children were kidnapped and forced to work on plantations to produce the beans, nor was some poor farmer forced to work and feed his family on ten cents a week just so we could eat cheap candy. I do not buy products made with what we refer to as “slavery chocolate.” I admit, the white sugar trade isn’t a heck of a lot better, but I think the fact that their crimes were outed and made more visible long ago has forced the industry to treat its laborers just a little better in modern times.

The first thing you learn when becoming an Herbalist is that what you put into your body matters more than anything else. I am a huge advocate for eating healthfully, and keeping processed foods out of your diet as much as possible. I understand the line of “processed” is blurred here, considering the cacao powder I bought is processed from cocoa beans. But if you choose to buy INGREDIENTS rather than ready-made foods more often than not, your stomach (and whole body!) will thank you.

One final note: a full jar of this mix lasts us close to a year, but only because I don’t let my kids have hot cocoa all the damn time. This has been my TED talk… now go play in the snow and drink some hot cocoa when you’re done!

Any old jar will work

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