Herbs bring a whole new dimension of flavor to foods. And when it comes to convenience, dried herbs are one of the handiest staple ingredients found in kitchens today. Properly dried, herbs are always at hand, take little storage space, and are available at any time of year. They also pack loads of flavor and can be used in a pinch to enliven any dish. The amount of flavor they deliver depends on how you store them and use them.
Unlike oils and whole-grain products that can go rancid, most herbs and spices rarely go bad, but their flavor weakens over time as essential oils fade away—a fact I discovered more than twenty years ago when I inherited an ensemble of seldom-used seasonings from an aunt. With great excitement, I added each herb to different foods, a little at first and then a lot, only to taste nothing but great disappointment. The seasonings had lost their flavor. Deeming them relics, I tossed them out and started fresh with a new batch of dried herbs. That’s when I learned how much herbs enhance food.
Herb essences quickly degrade, depending upon how and where an herb is stored and the way it is used during cooking. An herb’s flavor will linger longer when kept away from enemy elements such as heat, light, air, and moisture. Don’t store herbs and spices in a decorative rack on the counter close to a sunny window, by the kitchen sink, or near a stove. In these conditions, their potency will simply lack staying power.
Zip-type bags and plastic containers may be fine for storing some foods, but they’re not the best type of container for storing dried herbs. (Plastic is air-permeable and can sometimes transfer off-odors to foods.) Instead, choose a glass container with an airtight lid. Canning jars with rubber seals or other glass or ceramic jars are great. You can usually find a wide assortment at kitchen centers or specialty stores of decorative jars ideally suited for storing small amounts of herbs and spices. Recycled glass mayonnaise, mustard, and peanut butter jars also work well. For smaller amounts, try using baby food jars. Select ceramic jars or darkened glass when storing dried herbs on the counter to protect against light deterioration.
The ideal place to store dried herbs is in a cool, dark, dry area such as a cupboard or drawer. Keep herbs away from heat or humidity sources such as a stove, microwave, sink, or dishwasher, and avoid exposing dried herbs to light—though for short-term storage you may make exceptions. Because I do a lot of baking, I display frequently used herbs and spices in clear glass jars on the counter by my bake center. This niche of the kitchen doesn’t receive any direct sunlight and the spices are generally used within a few months. The rest of my seasonings are stored in wire racks located on the inside of the bottom cupboard doors—not in upper cupboards and topmost shelves, to where heat rises.
In proper conditions, most herbs and ground spices will retain their flavor for up to one year. (Whole spices can be kept for two to five years.) When the herb is cut, crushed, or ground, its essential oils and flavor will weaken faster than the same herb left whole. However, the length of time is only a guideline. An herb’s potency is best judged by its aroma. Crush the herb in your fingers, and if its aromatic appeal is weak or non-existent, it’s time to toss it out. (Toss it in the compost or on your outdoor grill when cooking.)
The best source of dried herbs is likely to be your own garden. If you’re drying homegrown herbs, be sure they’re completely dry on a screen or rack before storing to prevent mold from occurring. To test whether an herb is dry, crumble a leaf between your thumb and index finger. If it turns into a coarse dust, the herb is sufficiently dried. If it wrinkles or shows any signs of moisture, you will need to dry it longer.
Once stored, check the jar after a few days for any signs of dampness or moisture that may have collected on the inside of the glass. If moisture is present, remove the herb and dry again. Whether you buy your herbs or grow your own, be sure to label and date each jar. Once dried, many herbs look alike, and it can be difficult to tell them apart.
If you don’t have sufficient quantity in your garden, look for a busy store that sells dried herbs by the ounce so that you can buy them in bulk rather than in the overpriced supermarket jars. Store them whole to preserve the flavor, then crush or powder what you need when you’re cooking.
When substituting dried herbs for fresh, use half or a third of the amount called for in the recipe. Use dried herbs sparingly at first to ensure that they compliment the flavor of foods rather than overpowering them. Some herbs such as oregano, sage, and rosemary can hold up to long cooking times and are best added at the beginning of the cooking period; some have delicate flavors and are better added toward the end. Experiment until you know the flavor of the dried herb and how to use it.
Crushing a dried herb with your fingers or with a mortar and pestle helps release its flavor quickly. When adding herbs to a dish, always measure out the amount you need away from the stove. Standing over the stove with an open jar is a quick way to add humidity and can sabotage your efforts.