Herbs are the touchables of the garden; the plants you can run your hands along then enjoy the fragrance for minutes afterward. Keep the goodness of the garden going longer by using techniques like drying and freezing to preserve your herbal harvest.
Although dried herbs are very common — just look in every supermarket and the spice drawer of every home kitchen — only a few herbs are really worth drying.
Compare by sampling a jar of store-bought dried basil vs. basil leaves fresh from the garden. The store-bought dried herbs are musty and mild, the basil from your garden is snappy and peppery, reminiscent of cinnamon and mint.
Hardy herbs with woody stems or tough leaves like rosemary, lavender, thyme and sage take well to drying. The best time to harvest herbs for drying is while they are budding, just before blooming. Using sharp scissors, trim the stems and bundle them with kitchen twine.
If you have a cool, dry, ventilated space for drying, tie the bundles to a string and hang them upside down to dry on a rack or make your own DIY Herb Drying Rack. Alternatively, place the bundles in paper bags and store in an out-of-the way place, like a top shelf in the pantry. After a few weeks, you will have dry herbs. Remove the leaves and buds from the stems, discard the stems, and store the leaves in clean glass jars labeled with the date and the variety of herb.
Delicate herbs with soft leaves like basil, chervil, marjoram and tarragon are best preserved by freezing in olive oil or water. To preserve herbs in ice, clean them by stemming and then chopping the leaves. Pack the leaves into ice cube trays, fill with water, and freeze. After a few days, place the cubes into freezer bags, remembering to label with herb and date. The cubes will stay flavorful in your freezer for up to three months.
Use fresh herbs in vinegars, sugars & Salts
Herbal vinegars are delightful in salad dressings and marinades and are simple enough to make with your homegrown herbs.
The best herbs for vinegar are basil, chives (flowers, too!), cilantro, dill, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme.
To make herbal vinegar:
- Wash and dry herbs and place in clean glass jars or bottles.
- Use good quality vinegar, from 5 percent to 7 percent acidity.
- Pour vinegar over the herbs (a funnel makes this job easier).
- Age for one month in a cool, dark place.
Gourmet sugars and salts can be found in specialty shops, but are super easy to make at home.
Fragrant herbal sugars are captivating in baked goods. Try lavender sugar in scones or pound cake, or a tablespoonful of mint sugar in a cup of tea.
- Count on one tablespoon chopped fresh herbs to 1 cup granulated sugar.
- Simply layer the clean, fresh leaves in the sugar.
- Store in a glass jar at room temperature.
Herbal salts jazz up meats and vegetables, and can be used as “finishing salts,” the final fillip for a dish.
- Use 1/2 cup packed clean, fresh, flavorful herbs like rosemary, oregano and thyme to 1 1/2 cups kosher salt.
- Begin by placing the herbs and about half the salt in a food processor and blitzing until the herbs are flecked into the the salt.
- Add remaining salt, process, then spread mixture onto a baking sheet to dry for a couple of hours. Pour into a clean jar, seal and label.
Once you master the basics, get creative and combine herbs and spices to create your own gourmet blends. A famous blend is a Tuscan herb salt that combines thyme, rosemary, a tiny bit of lavender, sage and garlic. Proceed as above, letting the mixture dry for a couple of days before storing.
A delicious way to get the flavor of herbs and stay hydrated is to make infused water. Fill a clear pitcher with water and add to it ice and fresh sprigs of basil or mint, slices of cucumber and strawberry, even a handful of blackberries or blueberries. Slices of lemon, orange or lime add a refreshing snap, too.
Keep cool and refill as needed, discarding the herbs and fruit after a day or two.
In all of these recipes, be certain to always use organically grown, pesticide-free herbs. Read more about growing herbs in this story on heat-tolerant herbs.