Fire cider 101: an herbal remedy for winter colds

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I’m someone who gets miserably sick at least twice each winter. I suppose it’s a combination of having a so-so immune system as well as working with lots of kids. My body really has no chance. I’m also someone with a track record of reacting badly to medications. Some medications lower my blood pressure to the point I pass out. Others make me feel worse – in various tortured ways – than my original symptoms presented as.

Also, as someone interested in zero waste, the amount of packaging (necessary, but frustrating) is something to take into consideration.

So, yes, I 1000% believe in Western medicine and will use it if necessary, but I also like to avoid it when possible. Instead, I like to turn to alternative, preventative measures that might prevent me from needing more heavy-duty medication through the winter.

This year’s big experiment? Fire cider.

What is fire cider?

Fire cider is a mixture made up of apple cider vinegar, oranges, lemons, onions, ginger, horseradish, hot pepper, garlic, turmeric, and raw honey. (Give or take, some of these items can be omitted or more can be added, to taste!)

You can take 1 spoonful of the concoction daily for preventative measures or twice daily if you’re actually sick. It is said to boost the immune system as well as shorten the duration and intensity of cold/flu symptoms if they do crop up.

For us zero wasters, it’s a great way to get a little (theoretical) immunity boost without much more than some organic compost waste.

The historical context of fire cider

The current popularity of fire cider is definitely owed to American herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar. She popularized it sometime in the 70s/80s depending on who you ask, and it has since become a staple for the natural-remedy minded. She’s also going through a weird legal battle with a company that trademarked the name and co-opted the recipe, oddly enough.

If you’d like to see/experiment more with herbal remedies, definitely check out her book Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health.

While the current hippie incarnation of fire cider is pretty recent, the use of vinegar infused with herbs, spices, and usually garlic for health reasons has a far-reaching history.

One of the very earliest incarnations was known as oxymel, a mixture of vinegar and honey, used as honey in ancient Greece and beyond. Herbs were later infused into the mixture to provide further medicinal benefits, with the honey and vinegar diluting the bitter herbal taste somewhat. (source)

One of the newer recipes – first referenced in English in 1825 but rumored to be used throughout the Middle Ages  – is known as a Four Thieves Vinegar and is pretty similar to today’s fire cider. The mix was made with rosemary, sage, lavender, garlic, rue, cloves, camphor, and wine vinegar. The mixture was allowed to “digest for 7 to 8 days, with occasional agitation”. The concoction was also known as a Marseilles vinegar since it was “invented by four thieves of Marseilles, who successfully employed it as a prophylactic, during a visitation of pestilence” (AKA the Black Plague). (source)

If it’s good enough to ward off the black plague, it’s good enough for me… or is it?

Is there any actual science behind fire cider?

Herbalists will say absolutely. I’m confident in saying there’s not enough actual science to take a stance definitely as to whether a fire cider recipe is actually effective in boosting the immune system. What one can look at, though, is the singular ingredients you add and the studies done on them individually.

To me, the big two I find useful are garlic and honey.

Garlic, for example, has some evidence that it “may help prevent colds. In one study, people took either garlic supplements or placebo for 12 weeks during cold season, between November and February. Those who took garlic had fewer colds than those who took placebo. And when they did get a cold, the people taking garlic saw their symptoms go away faster than those who took placebo.”

Many studies have shown “the antibacterial activity of honey and found that natural unheated honey has some broad-spectrum antibacterial activity when tested against pathogenic bacteria, oral bacteria as well as food spoilage bacteria”. As for vinegar, “recent scientific investigations clearly demonstrate the antimicrobial properties of vinegar, but mainly in the context of food preparation”.

That’s not to say other ingredients don’t hold medicinal value. Tumeric has been shown to have “powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and circulatory effects”. Ginger helps settle upset stomachs. Studies have show ginseng “seems to increase the number of immune cells in the blood and improve the immune system’s response to a flu vaccine”.

So the ingredients are obviously helpful in some way, although to what degree is still arguable.

On a personal note, I think the strong anecdotal evidence as well as harder scientific evidence on individual ingredients is enough for me to use this mixture preventatively. If nothing else, I’m sure it’s not going to hurt me, it’s quite cost-effective, and very low-waste to make.

Of course I have absolutely zero medical background and you should always consult your doctor before starting a new treatment. I can also very safely say that I will never advocate herbal remedies to replace more effective medications in the name of zero waste!

A simple fire cider recipe

You’ve made it this far and feel confident that a remedy popular since the time of Hippocrates – at the very least – won’t kill you. Cool! Let’s talk about how to make a simple, low-waste fire cider recipe. You’ll need:

  • 1/4 cup peeled ginger, shredded or finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup peeled horseradish, shredded or finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup peeled tumeric, shredded or finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup white onion, finely chopped
  • about 5 or 6 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, sliced or chopped
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • raw apple cider vinegar
  • raw, local honey*

Other often-included ingredients: ginseng, cayenne pepper, peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, oranges.

Prepare and toss all your cut ingredients into a container that will fit everything. Feel free to edit and improvise based on tastes and what you have available. Once you’ve put all your cut ingredients into a container, pour raw apple cider vinegar in until it covers all the ingredients. Put a lid on it and store in a dark place for about a month, shaking the container gently whenever you think about it. (It helps to write the date you made it so you don’t forget when you started!)

When it’s ready – the liquid will be a deep brown – shake well and strain out the big bits. Add honey to taste and store in the fridge.*


  1. Rosemary Gladstar’s original recipe called for ginseng. I hate the taste, couldn’t source it unpackaged, and many current recipes don’t use it. If you do want to add it, I’d suggest about double the amount of ginger you use.
  2. This recipe is about half normally recommended – I wanted to try it out before I committed to making a huge amount – but you can change the proportions to however much you want!
  3. I’m not really sure how long this will last in the fridge. I’ve heard differing numbers from different sources, so consume at your own risk. I have a very cavalier attitude toward botulism, so I feel pretty confident it can last a long while.

Have you ever tried fire cider, either store-bought or homemade? Are you inspired to try it in preparation for the cold months ahead?

2 Replies to “Fire cider 101: an herbal remedy for winter colds”

    1. Ugh, feel ya. I end up putting a spoonful in a shot glass, adding an extra dollop of honey plus water to the top, and take it as fast as possible. (Plus, I don’t use horseradish because I knew I would absolutely not be able to deal with it – ugh!)

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