What is Steeping E-Liquid and Why Do We Do It
What is steeping?
We hear a lot of talk in the DIY e-liquid mixing community about steeping, but what is it? In the early days of vaping when e-liquid makers in the United States first started selling e-juice, the vaping community started talking about steeping their purchased e-liquids. We don’t know which forum or which vaper coined the use of the word steeping, but it’s stuck no matter how wrong the word actually is for the action of what is happening in our mixed e-liquid. When we think of the word steep or steeping we think of teabags sitting in a hot cup of water slowly releasing the flavor and essence of the tea it contains into the water. This is not what is happening to an e-liquid.
The process that e-liquid goes through as it is “steeping” is actually considered chemical reactions. The various flavoring molecules are already undergoing a chemical reaction by being mixed into a flavoring concentrate. Mixing multiple concentrates together and PG/VG in a mixture creates another chemical reaction. As the chemicals react and interact with each other the juice it goes through the process that everyone has been calling “steeping.” More discussion on chemical reactions at the end of the article.
Most mixers think that time is the main factor in the chemical reaction process of e-liquid mixing. But, time is not the only factor for producing a smooth delicious e-liquid, in fact it’s not even necessary for juice to be steeped. Homogenizing the liquids together is more important than waiting a month for the slow process of chemical reactions to occur. Since simply shaking the PG based flavors and any extra PG you may have added into the more dense VG is not the most effective method to achieve homogeneity. With ineffective homogeny, time for the two different density liquids and all the flavor molecules to interact and cause chemical reactions is the only way to work with just hand shaking your recipes. If you wanted to speed up the process, you need to use other tools and equipment to more thoroughly blend the liquids and flavors together. In some cases the tools themselves will enhance and cause different chemical reactions beyond just what time steeping will do.
Before I cover the “advanced steeping” methods, I do want to say that these methods are not necessary to creating a great e-liquid recipe, but they are helpful if you are as impatient as I am when you’ve mixed a new recipe and want to vape it as soon as possible. Shaking your e-liquid in the bottle you’ve mixed it in and allowing for time to pass as the liquid ages is the cheapest and easiest method. Most advanced steeping methods will cost a bit more money, though many of these times can be found in auctions on ebay for less than retail price — though I am not going to link to auction items as they change so often — I will give you links to retail priced items that you can then search for used versions of them.
Heated Mixing Methods
I am all for saving money. I’ve used several different totally free methods of heating up my just mixed liquid in order to shake it more effectively.
- Cockpot — with hot tap water on low for 20 minutes to 24 hours — Warm bottles with caps on, unless certain flavors need Breathing.
- Bowl of Rice — heat bowl of uncooked rice in microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute until rice is hot. Place e-liquid bottle in rice.
- Hot tap water bath — much like the crockpot, but without the crockpot. Water will cool off in about 10 minutes so if you want longer than that to heat, you will need to change the water frequently.
- Warm tumble dryer inside of a pillow — Yes I’ve tried this. I had a small 11 inch square pillow with a hole in it, so I stuffed some e-liquid bottles into it — the idea being that the stuffing will protect the bottles from damage in the dryer — and then set on low heat tumble dry for 20 minutes to 1 hour. It both shakes and warms the liquid. It was surprisingly effective. I wouldn’t just toss e-liquid bottles in with clothing or other things, but inside of the small puffy pillow seemed to work quite well.
You can use any method to heat your mix and then use one of the other shaking methods to more thoroughly blend your liquid together. Free is always a good thing. And while these methods work well enough, now that I have more lab equipment I can’t say as I’d use any of these methods again. But for the budget conscious or just getting started mixer, using a free and usually readily available method to warm and mix your liquid can be great.
How much time will be shaved off of steeping? Well, that really depends on your recipe and flavorings. For a recipe that might take a month to fully develop, you may find that your liquid is ready a few days to even a week earlier.
The following items fall into the category of both heating and mixing. I personally own both of these items, so I am listing them here as I have personal experience with using them. The first is a heated magnetic stir plate. I’ve had this unit for about a year now and I still love it and use it every time I mix.
The second item that I own and have used is a heated ultrasonic machine. I can’t say that I recommend this product or any ultrasonic bath machine in general, but there are other mixers that swear by them. I do have a reason why this isn’t my first choice for mixing: It is inconsistent. The negative side to using the ultrasonic bath is that hot spots of concentrated ultrasonic waves can form leaving some spots with very little ultrasonic wave activity. If you have several bottles in your bath you may find some that are more well mixed than others, and from batch to batch you may have varying steeping results. The inconsistency is what bothers me about the ultrasonic bath units. But if you are into experimenting or you follow other mixers who swear by it, then this is the unit I would suggest using. It has a good heating element and a timer. It is loud though. I ran it in a different room from where I was, as the noise was loud enough to be heard over the TV.
Stirring, Vortexing, and Whipping Methods
Purchasing a magnetic stirrer is not necessary, as there are designs and plans outlining how to build your own out of old computer parts on the internet. I have built one myself, however, the fan and the magnets were not strong enough for my normally higher VG blends to even move the magnetic stir bar in 30mls of liquid. You will need to make sure you use a fan that has enough torque to it to get the magnets spinning and magnets that are strong enough to move your stir bar effectively.
Ultimately I purchased a magnetic stir plate because I also wanted the heat feature.
Items you may already own
Immersion Blenders — Work very well for larger batches. Make sure your container (like a mason jar) has enough headroom to allow for your mix to not splash over the sides while mixing. I have the Cuisinart immersion blender and it is a lovely piece of equipment. Whips your liquid thoroughly blended in about 5 seconds. I normally will whip a large batch for about 20 seconds, really large batches for about 1 minute. While immersion blenders are not the exact same as high shear mixers, it does work in a similar way with your liquid at a far cheaper cost than a lab shearing device.
Milk Frother — This is essentially the same type of concept as the immersion blender however it works far better for smaller batches, 15ml, 30ml, 50mls. I own the one listed below and it works very well for being powered by two AA batteries. I would suggest using rechargeable AA batteries. It however doesn’t eat through batteries all that fast. I think about 35 batches mixed for 30 -60 seconds each was able to be had on a single set of batteries.
I recently bought a Vortex Genie 2T after hearing about how great they work from other mixers who have been using them for over a year. The idea is extreme agitation and vortexing action will homogenize the different density liquids as well as blending at the molecular level.
Where shaking a bottle or tube of liquid can leave dead spaces of unmixed liquids (flavors, PG, VG and nic) using the vortex mixer with a high end range of upwards of 3200 RPMs means your liquid is thoroughly blended down to a molecular level. I will cover more below about the differences as to why a vortex mixer can be one of the more superior methods of mixing.
I’ve already shown you the ultrasonic bath under the heating section, and discussed why it may not be the best choice for mixing e-liquid. But there is another form of ultrasonic that works in an efficient manner, however it is extremely expensive and probably not going to be on most mixers lists of lab equipment to buy.
An ultrasonic probe, either handheld or countertop model, should perform as good if not better than a vortex mixer. I don’t own one as it is too expensive for me to justify buying right now, but it is on my wishlist. The Hielscher Ultrasonics brand was what I was looking at for a probe. Gotta hand it to the Germans, they do make some very good equipment that has value for cost, in that it usually lasts significantly longer than Chinese made ones, and work better. I’ve seen them go for as low as $750 for a hardly used unit on ebay, which is about the cost of a brand new Chinese model. But if you end up with one that didn’t come with probes, it can end up being an additional $700ish dollars to purchase the probes too.
Why does the ultrasonic probe versions, or even the closed systems (which are self contained units that you add your liquid to and it moves through the ultrasonic action not exposed to air — to come out the other side fully homogenized — but would be more for juice companies use rather than at home) work better than the bath version? Because you are exposing far more surface area to the ultrasonic cavitation action and it causes more of the surface area of the liquid to be exposed to chemical reaction inducing ultrasonic wave form.
No. Nicotine is not needed to cause the flavorings and bases to have a chemical reaction. Nicotine does darken liquid as it ages because nicotine itself darkens due to it’s own chemical reactions with oxygen. However, the flavorings are already undergoing chemical reactions just by the individual molecules being compounded together in a flavoring, so when those flavoring concentrates are mixed together and then mixed with the base liquids more chemical reactions will take place absent of nicotine.
I will try to make a somewhat complicated science terminology as simple as possible. Extreme agitation in any form will cause chemical reactions to happen faster as the molecules are moving around, bumping into each other, and blending together in various chemical reactions. By agitating you are causing the various molecules to come in contact with more surface area of other molecules. This leads to more reactions happening. Adding some heat, gentle or higher amounts, can also speed up the process as heat excites molecules and makes them more available to chemical reactions that will take place.
I heat mixes on the magnetic stirrer. But I usually use a glass observational beaker cover to keep the top note volatiles from escaping too much from the heat. Another way I heat is to heat up my VG so that it is hot, but not so hot that it will melt plastic, so around 150 – 175F before mixing it into a test tube to be put on the vortex mixer. This warms the VG up to a thinner liquid, makes mixing easier, and warms the flavor compounds and makes them more open to chemical reactions in the base liquids while undergoing extreme agitation on the vortex mixer.
A lot of mixers are worried about heating their nicotine. I have not found an extreme loss of nicotine mg amount by heating, but some people have. If you are concerned about this problem, I usually recommend heating before adding any nicotine. Allow the mix to cool completely before adding the nicotine and then mix the nicotine into the cooled liquid. Since I have tested enough nicotine batches to know my process doesn’t result in any noticeable loss of nicotine, I add it all together and then heat. Since I use low amounts of nicotine just for myself I am not worried about it.
Homogeneity — Homogeneous refers to a substance that is consistent or uniform throughout its volume.
This is what we want to create in our e-liquid, a consistent and uniform combination of molecules throughout the liquid. Shaking works to do this. Agitating on a piece of equipment like a stirrer or vortexer works to do this only at a faster rate.
When we shake our e-liquid compound together it does not create a fully homogeneous mix. Even if they are very small, you will end up with pockets of flavoring that hasn’t yet stretched out in the base liquid and begun the chemical reaction process. This is why letting the mixture sit for a time works after shaking. The molecules in the compound are not still, they are moving and interacting as entropy increases by adding different solutions (liquids) to the mixture.
The homogeneous process that milk goes through is due to the fat solids that are in the milk in it’s raw state. If you’ve ever had raw milk you know that you have to shake it before you drink it because the butterfats float on top of the nearly 90% watery milk substance. This is why your milk in the grocery store seems to be uniform throughout, as the raw milk has had much of it’s butterfat removed and what is left is mostly water. The small amount of butterfat left in the milk is homogenized usually with ultrasonic homogenizers to incorporate the butterfat molecules into the watery milk substance with extreme agitation and heat. This is one of the main reasons it goes through pasteurization as well, even though pasteurizing started as a way to allow farms to continue their filthy ways while producing an uncontaminated product for the public to drink. Pasteurizing both kills bad bacteria (as well as all the good living cells in the milk that are beneficial to baby cows and humans) and with extreme heat helps homogenize the milk even further.
While we aren’t really looking to pasteurize our e-liquid, what we want to do is create homogeneity in our e-liquid (a uniform distribution of molecules throughout the base liquid) and to cause an increase of entropy within the liquid state.
I know my readers aren’t coming here for a science lesson, so I will keep it brief and give you a few links if you are interested in continued reading — that is if you don’t already have some understanding of the laws of thermodynamics.
Entropy describes the state of which something is — either in low entropy (order) or high entropy (chaos). When discussing entropy in chemistry with liquids is a little different to describing macro applications to larger bodies.
In our applications, our flavorings are in a state of increasing entropy when we purchase them. Our PG/VG/Nicotine are also in increasing states of entropy when we purchase them. When we mix it all together we are creating a new state of being for those molecules, new areas for them to live in, to vibrate in, to rotate in, and to move around in. This creates a greater state of increasing entropy for all the molecules. There is increasing disorder to the state of the liquid once we’ve mixed things together. This is why e-liquids “Steep.” What is actually happening is those moving little molecules are increasing their state of entropy together, and in the end creates a homogenous state of liquid once all chemical reactions have happened…however the entropy of the liquid never stops increasing, which is why e-liquids eventually go bad.
Agitating, stirring, shaking and heating e-liquids all increase entropy. It puts more disorder into the chaos going in in that bottle and aids in creating a homogeneous state of liquid. This is why the advanced methods of “steeping” actually work. It speeds up the entropy process. It may not make all recipes perfectly vapeable right from the start, but a recipe that might take 6 weeks to get to a state of homogeneity through natural increasing of entropy, can be had within a week after going through different methods of increasing entropy with tools.
If you are completely confused by all of this, I would recommending reading up on the laws of thermodynamics and how entropy works in chemistry: