There are vegetables, there are flowers, and then there are herbs. I call these little gems “little giants” because even though they are small in stature, they pack a big wallop of flavor and nutrients. So, why enjoy them just during the summer months when they are fresh?
Preserving herbs lets you enjoy their flavor enhancements to dishes all year long. Besides that, if you have ever planted herbs, you know that each plant gives and gives and keeps on giving, so much so that you could never use it all in one season, even taking into account if you share with all your friends and neighbors.
There are different ways to preserve them, depending on how you like to use them. Whichever method you choose, harvesting and preparing them all starts the same way. Be sure to cut them before the flower forms. If the plant has started to flower, cut the flower off or the plant will focus on the flower and not the leaves, which is the part you want.
Always cut herbs in the morning before the sun strips them of their natural essential oils. Snip the lower leaves first because they were grown first. Follow the motto of restaurants, “first in, first out.” Be sure and cut just above where the leaf meets the stem. This protects them from getting diseases caused by cutting too close to the stem.
Wash the herbs in water thoroughly, checking for bugs and making sure all dirt is off, especially if you harvest just after a rain. Dry them thoroughly, using one of three methods.
Herbs can be dried by cutting whole stems and hanging upside down in a cool, dark place. They are dry when the leaves begin to crumble. Shake to remove dust and withered leaves. Secure stems together and hang in a place that is well ventilated away from light. If you don’t have a good place, place them in a brown paper bag with holes to let air flow through. Ventilation is the key. This is probably the simplest method and it makes the space you hang them in smell delightful.
They can also be dried in the oven. This method is faster than air drying and is a good option if you are in a humid environment. Simply lay the herbs on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper since metal can affect the flavor. Place them in a 150 degree F. oven, or the lowest temperature that your oven has, and leave the door slightly ajar. Remove when the leaves are dry and crumbly and place in air tight container. This should take roughly 4 hours. If you have a dehydrator, that works equally well.
Herbs can also be frozen, especially leafy ones such as cilantro, basil, parsley and tarragon. They can be chopped and frozen on a cookie sheet and then stored in a Ziploc bag or they can be placed in ice cube trays and frozen in water or broth. If using the latter method, be sure and take into account the extra water when used in recipes. This approach works well for soups and stews.
Of course, you want to use as many fresh as you can and there are only slight differences between fresh and dried. Herbs placed in a glass of water will last two to three weeks in the refrigerator. When substituting dry for fresh, remember that dried have more concentrated flavor. When using dried, use a third of the amount of fresh that is called for in a recipe. Also, remember that fresh is added at the end of the cooking so heat doesn’t destroy the color and flavor whereas dried herbs need more time for the flavor to seep into the food, so add them at the beginning.
Herbs can also be preserved in oil, vinegar and as butter. When making herb butter, combine your favorite herbs with butter, shape and freeze. These are great on fresh hot rolls in the middle of winter. Herb butter is also known as compound butter, so look under these two names when googling for various recipes.
Herb-infused vinegar is great for making your own marinades and salad dressings. You can get creative and use fancy old bottles, just be sure and use corks instead of metal caps since vinegar will rust metal. Mix 1/2 cup of herbs with 2 cups of vinegar, seal with a cork and set in a dark place for at least six weeks, the longer it sets, the more robust the flavor. Most of these are made with either white or apple cider vinegar but you can get creative and try balsamic vinegar if you like the taste of it or white wine makes a good choice too. If you are not going to use it for a while, seal around the cork with beeswax.
You can also do this with oil instead of vinegar. If using oil, make sure your herbs are completely dry as any water left in the leaves will make the oil rancid. The proportions are the same, use 1/2 cup herbs per 2 cups of oil. As with vinegar, choose your favorite oils.
Now, here is the real nifty one. You can make your own cooking extracts using herbs. Pour vodka in an old jar, add vanilla beans and wait six weeks and you have your own vanilla. One of my favorites is mint extract. Put vodka in a jar and add mint. You can’t buy extracts that are fresher or more potent than making your own from your own herbs. Try your favorite flavor and add sugar to taste to make homemade coffee syrup. Put these in a pretty bottle and tie with a bow and you have unique Christmas gifts.
Herbs open up a whole new realm of flavor and can take a recipe from ordinary to extraordinary. There is no reason to watch them go to waste at the end of the season when there are so many choices for preserving them. Experiment until you find your favorites and then explore. The possibilities are endless.