Steeping 101, A Comprehensive Guide

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Within the vaping community, we often talk about steeping our juice, yet in reality most of us are well aware that the word steeping is really a misnomer…there is quite obviously no solid matter in our liquids (or shouldn’t be anyhow), and thus no flavor being extracted. In reality, aging or maturing is a far better term for the process, and the process itself is closer to the way Cabernet is handled than any sort of tea. That being said, steeping is a crucial component to getting the most out of your juice…sometimes. Like everything else in this little hobby/habit we partake in, subjectivity is always part of the picture, and for some vapers, and some liquids, fresher is better. There are some juices that are, IMHO, positively revolting without a good long steep, and simply magnificent afterwards. What exactly happens during that process, and the best way to go about bringing about The Change has been a topic of discussion in our community since I first began vaping nearly 5 years ago. I think we are reaching a point where the process can be explained as homogenization, plus a little something extra that is far more difficult to define.

 

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It all begins with the four main components of juice (there are various additives that are utilized by some vendors and home brewers, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll just address the main components), propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine, and lastly flavoring, which in and of itself, could be made up of any number of molecules. Both the nicotine and flavors need to be dispersed into solution as well, and while flavors are almost always PG based (aside from alcohol-based flavors) the nicotine can be in either, based on the vendor’s preference. Due to the differing viscosity of VG and PG, the ingredients can take time to fully meld, so to speak, this occurs both with time, and of course, more than a little agitation (shake those bottles immediately upon receipt, and at least once a day thereafter).
The next component of the steeping process is certainly debatable, but I believe there is more happening inside the bottle than just an even dispersion of the ingredients. After all, some juice requires no steeping at all, and will only change mildly over time, while other juice requires weeks (if not months) to reach full potential. If the only requirement for well steeped juice was agitation, we’d all have miniaturized paint shakers in our houses (and some of us do in the form of ultrasonic jewelry cleaners), and every juice would be perfect immediately following a good long shake. Heat also seems to help expedite the process. Many have stated that this is due to the molecules in the juice moving at a higher frequency, thus hastening the agitation at a molecular level. While I can concede that heat can, in some instances, speed up the process, I disagree with the reasoning for the results, at least partially. Keeping in mind that I’m a chef, not a scientist, my guess is that the molecules of flavoring are interacting with each other, possibly even creating new flavors in the process, leading to that well-steeped, full, round, balanced flavor that we all know and love. It makes sense when you taste a some of the sweet tobacco blends in both a fresh vs steeped state. An unsteeped bottle of something like a dessert style RY4 may come off harsh, with the tobacco tasting ‘green’, and the remaining flavors almost completely hidden from the profile. But after a good long steep, vanilla and caramel, for example, will both present independently, and can come together to create notes of things like cocoa, milk chocolate, nuts, and butterscotch, flavors that weren’t part of the original recipe at all.
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Additionally, allowing the fresh air to make contact with your juice regularly will also help speed up the steeping process. Why this is, I really can’t say. You will certainly notice the color change in your juice from this process if you vape anything over 3mg, but I believe that to be completely unrelated to flavor…it merely happens along a similar timeline. The color change itself is from oxidation of the nicotine. Higher nic concentrations will result in a darker final product as the nicotine oxidizes, but as I said earlier, a definitive¬†color change is not a reliable indicator of a well steeped juice, but a well steeped juice, using my process, will almost always result in a darkened juice.
On that note, the question remains, what’s the best way to steep e-liquid? My answer, and this is another topic open for debate, is simple, time. A year ago, I would have said (and did!) “there is no substitute for time,” and while I still believe that, there are ways of speeding up the process that I will address in the near future with a “Speed Steeping” post, but for now, time is the key. If you’re about to ask “Well how long does it take Mr. Rater?” the answer is simple, and something one of my old chef instructors used to say to anyone that asked how long to cook something for, “Until it’s done“. Every juice is different, but here are some reasonable guidelines:
  • Tobaccos and other dark flavored juice (coffee, chocolate, graham cracker) tends to take longer
  • Fruit blends tend to be ready sooner, often requiring no additional steeping time beyond what the USPS generously provides
  • High VG juice can take longer, and vice versa
  • Custards can take a very, very long time to reach their maximum potential
  • Anything utilizing TFA’s Ripe Banana can take a while to mellow
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The fact is, juice is a complex blend of different elements and quite often, it’s not very good until those different flavors have a chance to meld into a singular, cohesive flavor profile…think about how much better a hearty stew tastes a day or two after it’s been sitting in the fridge.
So, here is the process I use for steeping every juice I receive for review (unless the vendor specifically requests that the juice be reviewed fresh from the mailbox):
  • Upon receipt, each bottle is shaken vigorously, opened, old air is squeezed out, new air enters
  • The bottle then goes into the steeping drawer (cap on), in the order they were received so that I can better keep track of what’s next for review
  • Each and every day the bottles are shaken, opened, and given a minute or two to breathe before they’re recapped and placed back in the drawer
  • This process continues with every bottle until it is ready for review, usually ~3-4 weeks
  • I also give every bottle a single night in the drawer, uncapped, just before review to help dissipate any of the volatile perfume-y/floral notes that some flavors (i.e. pomegranate, blackberry, and anything alcohol based) are burdened with
  • If at that point, when I sit down with the juice to begin the review it still doesn’t taste right, I will occasionally attempt a hot water bath (sometimes even two) to see if there is any difference in flavor…to date, this has had no effect on bottles that have already been properly steeped using the above method
I know there are many other steeping methods (i.e. hot rice, UC, crockpot), and as I mentioned earlier, those will be addressed in an upcoming post, but this is my tried and true method, and it works. I am hopeful that this will help out a few people who can’t understand why everyone goes gaga for something like Indigo’s tobacco flavors, when all they taste is hot gasoline and burning tree bark. Treat your juice right and it will undoubtedly return the favor when the time comes.

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VaporRater

I am a classically trained chef, a musician, a father, a vaper, an avid DIY'er and sometimes vendor, and a connoisseur of really good e-juice.