By Jennifer McGruther
When the cold weather hits and everyone seems to have a bit of a sniffle, it’s time to make fire cider. It’s an old-school remedy with a sweet-tart flavor and spicy edge. Herbalists and natural health enthusiasts swear by the stuff, since it’s packed with anti-viral and immune-supportive herbs.
Devotees take the spicy, vinegar-infused tonic by the spoonful with the elusive promise that it helps ward off winter respiratory ailments such as colds and the flu—and they might just be onto something.
Part of the charm of fire cider is its accessibility. While your latest natural health influencer might extoll the virtues of pricy herbal blends with exotic ingredients from far-flung places, fire cider brings the art of folk medicine a little closer to home. After all, you can find most of the ingredients at your local supermarket if they’re not already in your pantry.
A Folk Remedy With Ancient Roots
In the early 1980s, renowned American herbalist Rosemary Gladstar developed fire cider as a simple immune-boosting tonic for cold weather. Inspired by similar colonial-era remedies, her version was both approachable and economical. It included ingredients that were easy to find, such as onions, garlic, ginger, horseradish, and cayenne pepper, all mixed with apple cider vinegar and honey. It required no specialized botanical knowledge or culinary skill; if you could chop onions and stir vinegar in a jar, you could make fire cider.
The remedy skyrocketed in popularity and, over the decades, transcended its roots in modern American folk medicine to enter the mainstream. It’s so popular that even Martha Stewart has a version, and dozens of small brands sell the remedy online and in local natural markets.
At its simplest, fire cider is an oxymel, a type of herbal remedy whose history stretches to ancient Greece and Persia. Oxymels combine medicinal and culinary herbs with vinegar and honey. Oxy refers to vinegar in Greek, while mel refers to honey, giving the remedy its name. Depending on the herbs used, these remedies were thought to support digestion, ease a fever, or, like fire cider, ward off illness and soothe the respiratory tract.
While ginger, garlic, onions, and cayenne pepper may seem more like the start of dinner than an immune-boosting tonic, these ingredients are potent in their own right. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that fresh ginger’s potent antiviral effects may help counteract respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Researchers have found that both garlic and onion are good sources of the anti-inflammatory compound quercetin, which shows promise in supporting immune system health.
Likewise, horseradish–which also is included in the original recipe–is a rich source of glucosinolates, which are sulfur-containing compounds that combat inflammation. (While the research on the benefits of these compounds is compelling, that doesn’t necessarily translate to efficacy, and more research is always needed.)
Variations for Flavor and Health
Besides the original ingredients of fresh horseradish, ginger, garlic, onions, and cayenne pepper powder, many modern interpretations include additional anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-supportive herbs.
Some herbalists skip the powdered cayenne pepper in favor of fresh chiles, such as jalapeño or habanero. Turmeric is a popular addition, as are citrus fruits such as fresh lemon (including the peel, which is a good source of bioflavonoids) and other common culinary herbs and spices. Sage, rosemary, and thyme can give the tonic a green, herbaceous quality, while some people prefer to add warming spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and star anise.
Others still include medicinal herbs such as elderberry, which is used in European folk medicine to combat colds and the flu, as well as rosehips, which are a potent source of the immune-boosting nutrient vitamin C.
How to Make Your Own
To make fire cider, you simply chop onions, garlic, and herbs and place them in a quart-sized mason jar. Then, you fill the jar with apple cider vinegar, seal it, and wait. Shake the jar daily to distribute the herbs, and in about 6 weeks, the herbal vinegar will be ready. Strain the vinegar and mix it with honey. The result is striking: sweet, sour, and garlicky with a penetrating heat that comes on slowly and can catch in your throat. It’ll last about 18 months stored in the fridge.
Traditionally, you take a spoonful of fire cider by mouth during the winter months or when you feel the prickling creep of an impending cold. While its reputation as a folk remedy is well-regarded, its culinary value shouldn’t be downplayed. That potent garlicky heat combined with sweet and sour intensity means that fire cider also works as an excellent marinade or even as a delicious base for a vinaigrette combined with extra virgin olive oil.
Fire Cider With Star Anise
With its garlicky heat and vibrant flavor, fire cider is a traditional tonic that promises to boost the immune system and support your health through the winter months. And it’s super simple to make—all you need is a handful of ingredients, apple cider vinegar, and honey.
Makes 1 quart
- 3 ounces ginger root
- 3 ounces yellow onion
- 1 1/2 ounce garlic cloves
- 1 1/2 ounce horseradish
- 1 1/2 ounce jalapeños
- 3 star anise pods
- 1 Ceylon cinnamon stick
- 2 cups raw apple cider vinegar, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup honey
Dice the ginger, onion, garlic, horseradish, and jalapeño, and layer into a quart-sized jar with the star anise and cinnamon stick. Cover with apple cider vinegar, adding additional vinegar to cover the contents of the jar as necessary.
Seal the jar and store it away from direct sunlight for at least 1 month and up to 6 weeks. Shake daily.
Strain the vinegar, discarding the solids. Stir in the honey until fully dissolved. Store at room temperature for up to 6 months and in the fridge for up to 18 months.