As an editor for Mother Earth News, I’m constantly surrounded by inspiring recipes and DIY projects. It can be a serious challenge to narrow down which ones to try, and which ones to simply accept as fodder for my Pinterest board. One of our natural health recipes, however, caught my attention from the first time I saw it. I craved the day I could throw down my red pen and replace it with a bag of fresh herbs — I simply had to test the Homemade Horehound Cough Drops Recipe before my eyes.
The stars aligned last spring when our Editor-in-Chief, Cheryl, developed a nagging cough. She casually mentioned that the horehound in her garden was doing well, and before I knew it I had volunteered to test the Horehound Cough Drops Recipe that had caught my eye. The very next morning a GIANT bag of fresh horehound appeared on my desk. I didn’t have much experience with horehound at the time, and I was surprised to see that the leaves are fuzzy and they feel super soft, kind of like sage. In the picture above, marshmallow is on the left and horehound is on the right.
I’m lucky enough to be an apprentice in an intensive local program that teaches how to grow herbs and process them for medicine. A few days after receiving the horehound, I was at my teacher’s home and she recommended that I add some marshmallow leaves to the cough drops; this is because marshmallow leaves help reduce inflammation in the mucus membranes and they also thin the mucus for easy expulsion from the body. This is a great benefit for someone with a nagging cough and deeply lodged phlegm. I plucked fresh marshmallow leaves from my teacher’s expansive herbal medicine garden, and I had all the fresh ingredients I needed to make the cough drops.
I followed this recipe for Homemade Horehound Cough Drops, which originally appeared in the 1993 issue of Mother Earth Living. Because I had so many fresh herbs, I doubled the recipe. To make the cough drops, you basically make a super-strong tea from your fresh herbs, and then strain the liquid. You add the tea, sugar (be warned, there’s a lot of sugar in this recipe) and honey to the pan, and then bring it all to a boil. Keep boiling the concoction until it reaches a hard-crack stage, which is about 330 degrees Fahrenheit. I almost didn’t buy a candy thermometer for this project because I figured a hard-crack stage would be pretty easy to reach and recognize. Wrong! That candy thermometer was well worth the three dollar investment; make sure you have one.
When the liquid gets super hot, it starts to bubble like mad. The hotter it gets, the higher the bubbles climb. In hindsight, I definitely needed to use a bigger saucepan. Because I was nervous to turn the heat up too high, and therefore have to deal with an overflowing, bubbly mess, it took a while for the batch to reach the hard-crack stage (about two hours). I checked this time online though, and it seems abnormally high. This is a warning to you all – use a big enough saucepan so that you can crank the heat without worrying about sticky bubbles oozing onto your stovetop. Keep an eye on it though — you also don’t want your syrup to burn and stick to the bottom of the pan. It’s all about finding a good middle ground.
You can tell the candy has reached the hard-crack stage when you drop a glob of syrup into ice water, scoop it out, bite it, and it feels hard like actual hard candy. I poured the finished liquid onto a well-oiled cookie sheet and let it cool for a few minutes before scoring. I was super new to the candy-making process, so I had to learn that “scoring” means tracing lines in the partly-cooled mixture so that it’s easier to break apart in neat little squares after it has hardened. I used a pizza cutter for this step and it worked really well.
The finished cough drops were SUPER bitter. Cheryl really liked them though, probably because they actually worked on her cough. There aren’t any weird processed ingredients or unrecognizable preservatives in these cough drops, which I love. The downside is that there’s a lot of sugar in these bitter bites. The sugar plays an important role in reaching that hard-candy consistency, which make these cough drops so much fun to suck on and crunch. If you’re willing to forfeit that consistency, I bet you could replace much of the sugar with honey to make a horehound cough syrup instead.
If anyone has a sugar-free cough drop recipe to share, please leave it in the comments section below. I’d love to try it out!