Get down and dirty in the garden
Briscoe White is owner and master grower at The Growers Exchange, an all-natural online garden center that specializes in rare and traditional herbs for culinary, aromatic and medicinal use. He is a member of many garden and nature-related organizations including the Garden Writers Association. When he's not tending his greenhouse or writing for his blog, Briscoe’s Seeds For Thought, he spends what little free time he has planning his next garden and playing with his dogs on his family farm in Charles City, Virginia.
As summer dwindles down to a close, you may be left standing in your garden or kitchen thinking "Okay, now what?" What should you do with your bountiful harvest of fresh herbs? If you're unable to use them all in a timely manner, we've got some great ways you can dry, freeze, pickle and pack them to continue enjoying your favorite herbs well into the winter.
Before you can begin to prepare your herbs for extended storage, you have to harvest them. Remember that when you harvest your herbs is just as important as how you preserve them. In order to yield the best results, make sure to do your homework on each particular plant. A good rule of thumb is to harvest fresh leaves in the early to mid-summer, or before the plant goes to bolt. Once it begins to flower, all of the plant's energy is focused toward producing seeds and the flavor begins to turn bitter. When harvesting your herbs, make sure to harvest from all around the plant to allow it to keep its shape (unless you are harvesting the whole plant), and to use clean, sharp garden scissors for a nice, easy cut.
You should also consider the end use of your herb. For example, with herbs such as lavender, the budding flowers are the most flavorful and fragrant; so it is best to harvest them before they fully open up if you're using this aromatic herb in potpourris or crafts. The prime time for picking culinary herbs is in the morning, before the sun reduces the flavorful, volatile oils of the leaves.
Drying Herbs At Home
Ten pounds of fresh herbs will dry down to about one pound, so drying is a terrific way to manage and easily store a large amount of herbs. Depending on the types of herbs you are working with, there are different drying methods that may work better than others. For herbs that dry quickly like mint, rosemary, bay and thyme, you can easily dry them in hanging herb bundles. Make sure to rinse and allow your herbs to dry before bundling. Create a small bunch of herbs (each herb may have a different drying time so it is best not to mix them up) with their stems all facing the same direction. About an inch and a half above the ends of the stems, wrap a rubber band around each bundle. Hang in a cool, dry place with little to no sunlight exposure for about two weeks. By hanging the herb bundles and allowing them to dry freely, the air that circulates around each bundle should quickly and evenly dry the foliage. Once dried, you can take them down and grind them to be stored in jars. If kept out of the light with an air tight seal, they should keep for at least four months.
For drying herbs like basil, which is a slower drying herb due to its higher moisture content, there's a different approach to try. To avoid losing the herb’s color and flavor, try chopping the basil and drying it on a screen or tray in a dark, dry place. By breaking the leaves up, it allows leaves to dry faster without letting the flavor or color escape.
Freezing your herbs is another great way to save them without compromising the flavor or color. Basil makes a terrific candidate for freezing and can be added to a pesto, sauce or stir fry. This method is also great for creating your own soup stock flavorings by freezing herbs like parsley, chervil, dill and even green onions. Just chop your herbs very finely and pack them into an empty ice cube tray. Cover them with water and allow them to freeze. Once frozen, pop them out and keep them in a freezer proof bag or container for later use. They are best if used within six months of freezing.
You may also consider combining your favorite herbs with a little olive oil when freezing to create a great base for your favorite dish. Just finely chop your herbs (a food processor comes in handy for this sort of job) and coat everything with about three tablespoons of olive oil. Get creative and try mixing it up, like combining garlic, 'Lemon Sweet Dani' basil, rosemary and garden sage to make a great marinade or glaze later in the season.
How to Make Herb Butter
For an extremely simple way to really improve your favorite dish, try making herb butter. By taking about 3 1/2 ounces softened butter and combining it with your favorite, flavorful culinary herbs and other seasonings, you transform a boring butter to a gourmet spread. Just let the herbs rest and release their flavor into the malleable, buttery mix for a few hours before placing in the fridge to harden. To really impress your friends, try packing the mixture into molds so that once the butter hardens, you can pop it out and enjoy a multitude of fun figures or sophisticated shapes, depending on the party!
Herbal Vinegars and Oils
Preserving your fresh herbs in oil or vinegar is a great way to make quick use of them as well as create a delicious drizzle for a dish. Depending on what kind of vinegar you use, some herbs may be better suited than others. For instance, nasturtiums and dill go well with cider vinegar, while mint and rosemary pair well with a fruity olive oil. Gardens Ablaze, an informational gardening website, has a list of great herb and vinegar combinations. As a general rule, about two or three fresh 4-inch sprigs of your favorite herb per cup of vinegar should give a wonderfully tasty combination. Because the oil isn't as overpowering as vinegar, you will need half as much of the herbs to create a great flavor. Preserving your herbs this way should give you a great addition to salads, meats, potatoes and more that will last you up to a year. Make flavorful vinaigrette for your favorite salad or an herb oil to toss into your next pasta dinner!
If your green thumb was even better than you expected this growing season, don't let it go to waste. Homegrown herbs taste so much better than the musty store bought variety, where it is sometimes questionable as to where they came from and how old they are. Enjoy the fresh, hard-earned fruits of your labor. By following some of these simple methods for preserving your herbs, you can enjoy your garden long into the winter and you will definitely notice the difference in your cooking!