Preserving herbs from the garden brings flavor to meals all year round.
Most chefs prefer to work with fresh herbs in the kitchen and they can afford to do that. The home cook might grow their own herbs and if you do, you know they grow like weeds. You can’t possibly use all of them fresh. In order not to waste them, you have to preserve them. Here’s some ideas of ways to preserve herbs from the garden so you can enjoy them all year round.
Air drying herbs has been a method of herb preservation for hundreds of years. Several sprigs are bundled and hung to dry. The easiest way to accomplish this is to pick springs from the plant, gather them together and apply a rubber band around the cut ends to bind them into a bundle. Herbs that have small leaves, like tarragon, thyme and savory, can have 10 to 20 sprigs bound together. Those with larger stems and leaves, like sage and mint, do better with only five to eight sprigs. Hang the bundles upside down from a nail in a ceiling beam or on the wall until they dry. It must be in a warm, dry area out of direct sun. A garage or attic is a good place. Avoid bathrooms and kitchens as there is too much moisture in the air.
Some herbs are difficult to hang. For those, just put them in a loose weave basket lined with some nylon netting and hang the basket from the handle. You only dry the small daisy-like flower of chamomile and if you bundle and hang the herb, the petals fall to the floor while it is drying. Putting the flowers in a basket to dry works much better. Just make sure air can flow all around the basket.
Drying herbs in the oven takes a little practice because you have to dry just the right amount of time so the herb’s oils do not totally dissipate and the leaves have to dry enough to repel mold. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread the herbs on it. Herbs with larger leaves should not be allowed to touch and there should only be a single layer of herbs with small leaves. Place the herbs in a 150 degree Fahrenheit oven and leave the door of the oven slightly open. Check every 20 minutes and stir the herbs around a bit. The herb leaves should be dry in one to four hours, depending on their thickness. Parsley and chives do well in oven drying. The leaves will be crispy when they are dry.
Herbs that have large leaves fare better in microwave drying. Pull the leaves off the stems and place them on a paper towel in the microwave so the leaves do not touch. Cover with another paper towel and microwave on high for 1 minute. Check the leaves and if they are not dry, do bursts of 30 seconds until they are. The leaves might feel leathery after a few bursts. If that happens, stop and wait for the leaves to cool before proceeding. Feel the leaves again and if crispy, they’re done. If they still feel leathery, they need a few more bursts. You need to wait for the leaves to cool to truly tell if the they are dry. Basil turns black and ugly when it is air or oven dried, but when microwaved it stays nice and green.
Most herbs can be frozen, but they come out limp and discolored when they thaw. They still taste good though, and work well in soups and stews or anything where the herbs are finely chopped. Basil, cilantro, parsley, tarragon, chives and savory are easily frozen. Chop them up and pack them into each compartment of a plastic ice cube tray. Add a trickle of water carefully so as not to disturb the herbs. Place plastic wrap over top of the ice tray and freeze. Pop them out and put them into a labeled freezer bag. When you need some herbs, simply take out a cube and pop it into the soup pot.
It is also possible to freeze herbs in olive oil and this works well in recipes where the oil is one of the ingredients. Chop the herbs and pack them into the compartments of the ice cube trays about 2/3 cup full. Pour olive oil over to fill the compartments. Cover and freeze. You can also use melted butter rather than olive oil.
Use canola, safflower or olive oil to make herbal oils. Sterilize a bottle or canning jar and fill it 1/3 of the way full with washed and dried herbs. Pour the oil over to make the bottle or jar almost full and place the cap on. Let the jar or bottle sit at room temperature in a warm, dry area for two weeks. Strain and put the resulting fragrant oil in a pretty bottle along with a fresh sprig of the herb. The bottle must be either corked or capped. Strong flavored herbs are suitable for oils. It is best to store finished oils in the refrigerator.
Use white wine vinegar when using lighter flavored herbs like savory, thyme and lemon balm. Use apple cider vinegar for stronger flavored herbs, like basil and rosemary. Vinegar reacts with metal, so use bottles with corks to make herbal vinegar or place a piece of plastic wrap over the opening of the canning jar before putting the cap and lid on.
Wash and dry herbs and place 1/2 cup per every 2 cups of vinegar in a bottle or jar. You can also add a peeled clove of garlic for extra oomph if desired. Store in a dark, warm area for four to six weeks, then strain, put into a bottle and insert a fresh sprig of the herb. You can leave herbal vinegars out at room temperature and they will last a few months.
Use these different ways to preserve herbs from the garden to extend your harvest. Keep them for yourself or use as gifts to friends and relatives that like to cook.