Homegrown herbs are one of the garden’s greatest pleasures. Preserving herbs in a way that doesn’t negatively impact their flavor enables you to enjoy your homegrown herb harvest for months. In the following excerpt from the gorgeous and useful book Herbal Houseplants, (used with the permission of its publisher, Cool Springs Press) author Susan Betz sheds some much-needed light on how to properly preserve herbs via drying and freezing. Plus, you’ll learn tips for harvesting, as well as preserving herbs in butters and herb-infused vinegars.
Guidelines for harvesting and preserving herbs
The real beauty of herbs emerges when you get up close and personal with the plants. Knowing when and how to harvest them involves an intimate connection and firsthand knowledge of each plant’s natural life cycle and reproductive habits. We can all benefit from a daily dose of green enchantment. Ultimately herbs appeal to each of the five senses and have something of value to satisfy the mind, body, and spirit of every person. Harvesting can begin anytime there is sufficient foliage on the plant to tolerate cutting. Except for annual herbs at the end of their growing season, never cut back a plant completely when harvesting it.
Rules for herbal harvesting
Follow these tips for the most bountiful harvest.
- Most herbs put out new growth at the tips of their branches and this is where they should be pinched to encourage a bushier shape. Use herbs fresh, or dry for later use. Some herbs, such as chives, parsley, or sorrel, grow from the base of the plant, so snip the older leaves growing outside first. Be careful not to over-harvest the plant.
- If your herbs are outdoors, harvest them in the morning after any dew has dried and before the sun gets too hot. To harvest properly, cut stems. Do not pull leaves from the plant.
- Pick healthy growth and discard damaged flowers and leaves.
- Only harvest what you have time to prepare and use.
- Wash, dry, and preserve herbs as quickly as possible after harvesting them.
- When harvesting herbs grown for their flavorful leaves, harvest the leaves just before the plant flowers.
- Harvest flowers for drying before they’re fully opened.
- Harvest seeds when they’re fully ripened. For this, you can cut the whole plant or just the seed stalk/head.
There are several methods you can use to preserve and enjoy your herbal harvest. Here are some of my favorites.
Techniques for air-drying herbs
- Tie large leafy-stemmed herbs with rubber bands into loose bundles and hang them in a room or closet with good cross air circulation. Herb bundles tend to shrink and loosen as they dry—check them and tighten each bundle as needed. Depending on the herb, drying time ranges from 2 days to several weeks for the herbs to completely dry. They should feel crisp when fully dry.
- Strip the fresh leaves or flowers from the plant stems and spread them in a thin layer on screens. You can use a house window screen lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Place screens in a well-ventilated area and let the herbs dry. Stir the herbs and spread them out again several times a day to speed drying times.
- Hang plants harvested for seeds upside-down to dry with the flower/seed heads enclosed in paper bags to catch dropping seeds.
- Store completely dried herbs in clean glass jars away from heat and light to preserve their flavors and fragrances. Be sure to check for moisture before putting freshly dried herbs into jars.
Techniques for freezing fresh herbs
There are three main ways to preserve herbs by freezing them.
- Carefully chop fresh-cut herbs with a kitchen knife or kitchen shears. Evenly spread the herbs on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place it in the freezer for several hours. Pack the frozen herbs in small containers, label and date the containers, and keep frozen for 6 to 8 months.
- Freezing herbs in stock or water works well for preserving herbs for use in stews and dishes with high water content. Place finely chopped fresh herbs in water or broth in the desired concentration and freeze in ice-cube trays. Remove the frozen cubes from trays and place in zip-top bags. Keep frozen until needed. You can freeze whole edible flowers by placing them in ice-cube trays. Fill an ice-cube tray half full of water, then place the edible flowers facedown in the water and finish filling the tray with water. Freeze until firm. Transfer to zip-top bags. Keep frozen until needed.
- To freeze herbs in oil, blend 2 cups (weight varies) finely chopped fresh herbs into 1/2 cup (120 ml) good-quality oil. The oil acts as a carrier for the herbs, so use just enough oil to bind the mixture. Pack the herb oil into small airtight containers, label and date your containers, and freeze for up to 1 year. Chip or scrape off what is needed for each dish. Herbs in oil must be kept frozen until use.
Thymely tips and sage advice for using herbs
Herbs are meant to enhance the flavor of food, not smother or overpower it. Do not add herbs to taste, but merely for a touch of flavor. The general rule is ½ teaspoon dried herbs in a recipe per 4 servings. Use 4 times as much of a fresh green herb. The right amount of herb for your family may vary from this rule. Too little is better than too much; start with a “pinch” and add more after letting the herb’s flavor mingle and mix with the other ingredients.
Fresh herbs are heavenly. Any herb can be used fresh for seasoning food, mixing with salad greens, or brewing tea. Soft green stems can be used but woody stems should be discarded. Freshly cut herbs will last 3 to 4 days when wrapped in a damp towel placed in a plastic bag and kept refrigerated.
The longer an herb is in a dish, the more of the herb’s volatile oil that is released, so allow time for flavor to develop. Heat brings out flavor more quickly than cold, so add herbs to cold dishes, vegetables, cocktails, butters, or cheese spreads several hours to overnight before serving. Don’t worry about the “proper” herb. Blessed are the curious for they shall have an adventure.
Quick and simple ways to use herbs
Making a basic herb butter
Herb butter may include any single herb or a combination of several.
Combine 2 or 3 tablespoons (weight varies) finely chopped fresh herbs with 1 cup (2 sticks, or 224 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature. Some cooks like to add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil to give the herb butter a more spreadable texture. You can also add a pinch of salt or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Pack the butter into a small crock or roll it into a log, using plastic wrap as an aid, for slicing. Refrigerate the herb butter in an airtight container for about 3 weeks, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Clean, unblemished fresh herb leaves, seeds, roots, and flowers can all be used to flavor vinegars, depending on the recipe. Make sure your herbs are thoroughly washed and dried before placing them into the vinegar. Use a high-quality vinegar within an acidity level no lower than 5 percent.
Combine the ingredients in a ratio of ½ to 1 cup (weight varies) herbs to 2 cups (480 ml) vinegar.
Place the herb parts in a clear glass container, pour the vinegar over them, and tightly close the container. Let sit for several weeks for the flavor of the herb parts to infuse the vinegar. Strain the herbs from the vinegar and rebottle the vinegar. Use a plastic lid or add a layer of wax paper or plastic wrap to the bottle top before placing the cap on the bottle to avoid a metal lid corrosion.
Can you grow herbs indoors? Yes!
To learn more about growing herbs indoors, you’ll want to peruse the pages of Herbal Houseplants by Susan Betz. Not only will you find all the information you need to grow productive and beautiful herbs indoors, you’ll also discover dozens of unique and surprising ways you can enjoy them.
For more on growing herbs, please visit the following articles:
- How to grow parsley
- Basil growing tips
- How to harvest chives
- Oregano drying tips
- Vietnamese coriander
- How to harvest lemongrass