Culinary herbs are one of the most versatile plants gardeners can grow. They will thrive in any space that has good sunlight, have a pungent aroma that flavors a variety of foods, can be easily, inexpensively and naturally preserved and when stored will stay fresh for as long as a year. A bonus is that the flavor of home-grown herbs — they will be happy in pots on the deck of a house, apartment or condominium, the balcony of a high rise in a major city or, in some cases, even in a planter on a bright windowsill — is superior to that of herbs in the produce section of nearby grocery stores.
Here is a guide for preserving, storing and cooking with herbs.
There are two considerations for harvesting herbs at their peak flavor: Time of season and time of day. The best time to harvest herbs is when flower buds form or just open. That’s because herbs get their flavor from oil in the leaves, and the leaves have the most oil just before flowering. If the plant has flowered, it can, of course, still be harvested. The flowers also have a variety of uses, including in salads, omelets and herb butters. The best time to cut herbs is mid-to-late morning when the sun has dried the dew from the leaves but before the heat of the day has drawn out their oils and diluted their flavor.
A note of caution about harvesting in winter: Taking small amounts for cooking is fine. Large harvests are not. Cutting plants encourages new growth, which is tender and can be killed by freezes. Even “hardy” perennials can die from cold damage if plants are severely cut back.
Herbs can be kept for long periods by either drying or freezing them.
They can be dried in an oven or even a dehydrator, but air drying is the easiest, least expensive and most effective way to preserve their flavor. Air drying is a slow, natural process in which the leaves retain more of their oils than is possible in faster drying methods. Microwaves are not recommended because they cook the herbs, compromising their quality.
Here is a classic four-step process to air-dry herbs:
Cut the stems, gently shake to remove insects, dirt and debris and remove yellowing or damaged leaves.
Rinse in cold water, set aside to dry.
Strip off several bottom leaves, bunch five-six now-bare stems, hold upside down and tie together.
Hang in an airy room or attic and leave undisturbed for two-three weeks or longer.
Freezing herbs is also an effective way to retain their flavor.
Simply follow steps one and two above and then place a few sprigs in an airtight plastic freezer container or freezing jar. Or, spread the herbs on a cookie sheet, place in the freezer and when the herbs are frozen put them in airtight containers and place the containers in the freezer.
To use the herbs in soups or stews, dice them, put them in ice cube trays, fill the trays with water, freeze the trays, pop out the frozen cubes, put them in airtight freezer bags and return the bags to the freezer.
Storing dried herbs
Herbs must be completely dry when stored. Discard any bunches that have mold. Strip the leaves from the rest, place the leaves in small airtight containers (food storage bags, small jars) and store the containers in a cool, dry and dark place — the refrigerator will work fine!
Cooking with preserved herbs
For best results, use within a year. Just before adding herbs to a recipe, crush them with a mortar and pestle to release their flavor.
Have other tips for how to store fresh herbs? Leave us a note in the comments below.
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