Making horehound cough drops.

I didn’t plan to grow any horehound in my herb garden, but the nice lady at the Dexter Mill offered me a leggy horehound plant for a dollar, along with a bunch of free vegetable plants that were in bad need of a good home.  I remember eating horehound candy sticks as a child but you don’t see those around much anymore.  I don’t remember thinking they were too tasty, which is probably why you don’t see them now.

But it turns out that horehound makes very nice cough drops, and today I made my first batch of them.

According to the University of Michigan hospital website:

Horehound contains a number of constituents, including alkaloids, flavonoids, diterpenes (e.g., marrubiin), and trace amount of volatile oils. The major active constituent in horehound is marrubiin, which is thought to be responsible for the expectorant (promotion of coughing up of mucus) action of the herb. In addition, marrubiin contributes to the bitter taste of horehound, an action that increases the flow of saliva and gastric juice, thereby stimulating the appetite. These actions likely explain the long-standing use of horehound as a cough suppressant and expectorant as well as a bitter digestive tonic.

Put 1 ½ cups of fresh, rinsed horehound leaves in a small nonreactive saucepan and add water. Bring to a hard boil and then turn off heat, allowing the leaves to steep for 20 minutes. Pour through a strainer to remove leaves, then return liquid to pan.  I was amazed at how strong the vapors were; my lungs felt like I was breathing Vick’s Vapo-Rub.

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Add 2 cups sugar and 2 tablespoons honey and return to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.

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Boil to the hard-crack stage (300-310 degrees F), using a candy thermometer if you have one.  If you don’t have one, use the cold water method: once the sugar syrup is forming strands when you drip it off your spoon, add a drop to a cup of cold water and then crunch it with your teeth.  If it’s still sticky instead of crunchy, it’s not ready (for more on the temperatures associated with different stages for making candy, see The Science of Cooking website).

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Pour the syrup into a buttered pan.

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If you have candy molds like these, you can use them instead.

I also read about a trick I want to try next time in which you put a thick layer of powdered sugar into a pie plate, tamp it down with your hands, and then use the bottom of a food coloring bottle to make indentations, forming a powder sugar mold.

After I poured my sugar syrup into the buttered pan, I let it cool a little and then quickly formed it into cough drop shaped balls by hand.  Careful – the mixture is still pretty hot.  You have to work quickly because once it cools a bit more, the candy hardens and you can’t shape it.  You could also just leave it in the pan and cut or break it like you do with peanut brittle, but it won’t be in a pleasing lozenge shape then.

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Finally, dust cough drops with fine granulated sugar if you have it; I didn’t have any, so I used powdered sugar.  I stored my cough drops in a glass jar.

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Horehound Cough Drops Recipe:

  • 1 ½ cup fresh horehound leaves, rinsed and drained in a colander
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • powdered sugar, to coat
  1. Put horehound leaves in a small nonreactive saucepan and add water. Bring to a hard boil and then turn off heat, allowing the leaves to steep for 20 minutes. Pour through a strainer to remove leaves and return liquid to pan.
  2. Add sugar and honey and return to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
  3. Boil to the hard-crack stage (300-310 degrees F) using a candy thermometer if you have one.  If you don’t have one, use the cold water method: once the sugar syrup is forming strands when you drip it off your spoon, add a drop to a cup of cold water and then crunch it with your teeth.  If it’s still sticky instead of crunchy, it’s not ready.
  4. Pour the syrup into a buttered pan or candy molds.
  5. Dust cough drops with fine granulated or powdered sugar and store in a glass jar.