Hold Onto the Harvest

Stock your pantry with the season's bounty. An award-winning chef shares tips and recipes for capturing peak summer flavor.

| August/September 2008

  • Lavender dries easily by hanging. When buds reach full color, that's the time to harvest and dry.

I’ve built my career promoting fresh herbs for cooking, so when people ask me how to preserve them, I often say I don’t—I cook with whatever fresh, seasonal herbs I have in my garden. (In Seattle’s mild coastal climate, we can harvest at least a handful of herbs year-round).

But I admit that’s not the whole truth. If you grow herbs, you know that flush feeling at summer’s end, when plants are lush and waist-high. You can’t avoid thinking how sad it will be to lose the abundance to the inevitable frost. So although I don’t obsess about saving each and every sprig, I do preserve herbs in many ways: I hang bunches of lavender for shortbreads and spice rubs; dry mint for teas; save oregano for winter tomato sauce; and grind lemon verbena with sugar for drinks and custards. I sieve and bottle fennel "pollen" for seafood dishes and I bottle capers made from nasturtium seed pods. And of course I couldn’t make it through a winter without a freezer filled with pesto made from the late bonanza of fresh basil.

Easy Does It Drying

Drying is the easiest way to preserve herbs, but there are both good and poor herbal candidates for drying. Ever try cooking with dried parsley, cilantro or tarragon? Not so good! The best herbs for drying are members of the mint family (labiates), including spearmint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, savory and lavender. One exception is basil--its complex flavor is best captured by freezing. (For tips on harvesting and preserving specific herbs, see "Gathering Goodness.")

Because essential oils evaporate, the flavor of dried herbs always differs from fresh flavor. But dried herbs can be used successfully in soups, stews, braises, breads, rubs and marinades. In fact, some authentic Mediterranean recipes require dried herbs; lamb tangine, for instance, relies on the intense flavor of dried mint.

The simplest way to dry herbs is to tie a bunch of sprigs together with a piece of string and hang them in a warm, dry place, out of direct sunlight. Remove the dried leaves from the stems and store them in a tightly sealed container, away from bright light.

When to Freeze

Freezing is the most effective method for preserving essential oils, so it’s the best choice for delicate, soft-leaved herbs, such as basil, tarragon, dill and marjoram. You can simply flash-freeze leaves on a baking sheet, then gather and store them in a bag. But a better way to capture the herbs’ flavor is to immerse them in vegetable oil or butter. This not only traps their flavor, but also protects the leaves from freezer burn.

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