Preserve That Harvest
If your garden is growing at a gallop and producing far more than you can use at the dinner table, now’s the time to think about putting some herbs by for the coming months. You’ll be glad you did.
How you preserve your herbs depends on what you’re harvesting and how you plan to use it. Some herbs hold up well to drying, keeping much of their flavor and fragrance in the process. Others seem to store better in the freezer. When drying herbs for craft uses, you don’t have to take care to preserve the flavor, so you can cut some corners.
Water your garden the night before, taking stock of what to harvest and carefully rinsing off the leaves as you go. Drying is a good technique for culinary herbs such as oregano, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, thyme, mints, and sage.
In the morning, after the dew has dried, gather a basket and your pruning shears and head to the garden. If it’s a cloudy day, all the better. You want to work as quickly as possible, harvesting whole stems rather than just leaves. Get them into the house promptly.
Sort the herbs and check the leaves to be sure they’re clean; if your rinsing in the garden from the night before wasn’t sufficient, rinse them and pat them dry (or use your salad spinner). Most herbs can be dried whole; for herbs with thick stems or leaves, removing the leaves from their stems will help them dry faster.
Spread the herb stems and leaves out on a screen (or if you just have a few, several layers of paper towel can stand in), and place them in a spot where they’ll get good air circulation (even from a fan) but are away from sunlight, heat, or moisture.
Check them daily, stirring them as necessary. They need to dry thoroughly, so don’t rush them or you’ll have a moldy mess down the road. When they’re crispy-dry to the touch, they’re ready. You can easily strip the leaves off the stems at this point, or store them whole. Put them in jars with tight-fitting lids; dark-colored glass is perfect. Don’t keep them next to the oven, as they should be stored away from heat and light.
Don’t dry culinary herbs in a microwave oven; it’s too hot. Here’s something I learned years ago from Madalene Hill, a wonderful teacher about herbs who lives in Round Top, Texas: The essential oil in basil leaves, the source of its flavor and fragrance, volatilizes at about 85 degrees, which is why the garden is so fragrant in the afternoons when it’s warmed by the sun. While drying herbs in a microwave oven may make your kitchen smell great, that precious fragrance is in the air, not the leaf.
Now plan a harvest of herbs to freeze or store in vinegars and oils. Many herbs with delicate flavors such as tarragon, chervil, basil, parsley, and chives will hold their color and a flavor that’s closer to fresh if they’re stored in the freezer or mixed with butter or oil before freezing, or if they’re preserved in vinegar. Creativity and personal preference play a role here. You want your herbs to be convenient for your tastes and cooking style. Here are some tips:
Parsley is easy to keep in a plastic freezer bag in the freezer because when you need some chopped parsley in cooking, you can just rub the frozen clump against a grater. Chives can be snipped into plastic freezer bags and frozen for convenience. An excellent way to preserve tarragon is to pack a clean jar full and cover the leaves with a good white wine vinegar. You can fish out the tarragon and use it as is or give it a rinse, and the vinegar it flavors is wonderful in itself.
I’m such a pesto fan that I’m likely to use up all the basil I harvest in making a big batch of pesto for the freezer. Some people freeze pesto or herbed butters in individual servings in ice-cube trays; I prefer plastic freezer bags, which can be flattened like envelopes so that they’ll stack up in the freezer and whatever portion you need can be easily broken off.
Dried herbs for craft uses can be tied into bundles and hung upside-down from the rafters to dry in an airy spot in the garage or spare bedroom, or spread out on screens. Or for quick results, you could try the microwave. Think ahead to the holiday season and the gifts you could fashion with this bounty.
Kathleen Halloran, a former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer and editor living in Las Vegas, Nevada.