I love growing my herb garden during the warmer months. I grow everything from mint (chocolate mint is my favorite, I can eat it off the stem) to cilantro. I love that it adds flavors to everything imaginable in my kitchen, from making my crepes savory to adding basil on top of fresh mozzarella and flattened bread making pizza that much more delectable.
There are many things I can do with the different flavors but after a while, it seems my garden grows more than I can use on my own – and eventually it will be more than I can use even giving it away in fresh form.
So, this summer I am studying up on different ways to preserve my abundance of goodies to get me through until the next growing season. Here is what I have come up with:
Ways to preserve your herbs:
Harvesting and Prepping
To start out with, you are going to want to make sure you prep it right before you begin saving the fruits of your labor.
In order to do so there are a few simple steps. The first is to make sure that you are cutting the herb before their flower forms. It's important to note that many plants have to be trimmed in order to be more productive. Basil is a good example. If you see it flowering, cut the flowers off or it will focus on the flower and not the leaves.
It is best to cut the herbs in the morning before the sun has taken away the herbs natural essential oils. Use the lower leaves instead of the upper ones as the lower leaves were the first grown. We will follow the rule that most restaurants are supposed to: First in, First out.
Also, you want to make sure and cut just above where the leaf meets the stem. This protects it from getting diseases that might be caused by cutting too close to the stem.
Next, you want to wash your produce thoroughly, being sure to check for bugs.
Afterward, dry them thoroughly as well. I like to use a salad spinner for this task. I read another woman likes to dry it on a paper towel, knowing that they are dry once the paper towel is dry. What a great idea!
Now, onto the different ways of preserving herbs.
1. Storing Fresh Herbs
This one is actually really simple and shouldn't take much effort; however, it does help them last longer. My basil lasted three weeks longer when I tried this!
To keep your fresh herbs lasting longer, simple: Once they are prepped (above), add to a mason jar, label, place in refrigerator. As you need the herbs, get some out and then place back into the fridge. You can enjoy for up to two weeks.
We all know that some things are better in the refrigerator than others and herbs are a safe bet as far as foods you can put in there. Just make sure to have the herbs in a sealed jar because you don't want them taking on a funky taste from another item in your fridge that doesn't go well with the herbs.
2. Air Dry – Bundle Method
If you sometimes forget to check your plants, come back a week later and they are overflowing with herbal goodness, I recommend this method as it allows you to dry a larger amount of herbs at one time. Plus, there is something romanticly rustic about seeing herbs drying upside down tied up in the house.
Simply tear off as much as you would like to preserve and bundle them together. I prefer to tie them with kitchen twine because that's typically what I have on hand. Hang them upside down and let them sit for a minimum of two weeks.
If you are worried about leaves falling off, I recommend putting them in a brown paper bag with holes and then bundling them. The holes give them air and make sure all the leaves stay in the same place if they do fall off. The holes are to make sure that it has air moving around inside the bag, this way it does not begin to mold or rot.
After the two weeks are up, take them off and store them however you'd like. I recommend a cute jar with a label or a mason jar – those things are great!
Important: You want to make sure your herbs are as dry as they can get. If they are not, they will mold.
Herbs that are good for this include Rosemary, Lavender, Dill, Summer Savory, Sage, Thyme, Bay leaves, and Oregano.
If you want to hang Basil, Oregano, Tarragon, and Lemon Balm to dry, I recommend putting them in smaller bundles and making sure they are dry.
3. Dehydrator Method
The dehydrator is one of my favorite things to use in my kitchen. I make fruit roll ups and dried fruit with it, among other things. My family really likes dehydrated kiwis.
Of course, I added it to this list because I use it to preserve my herbs when they are in full season and I am already getting my dehydrator out to make something else. It has the added benefit during the summer of not adding extra heat in the house, which adds another bonus to choosing this method of dehydrating the herbs.
Here's how I do it:
- Place the leaves or stems with enough space apart from each other
- Turn it on (mine doesn't have settings)
- Rotate trays occasionally
- Wait about six to eight hours
- Pull off tray and place into jars
If your dehydrator has settings you will have to see which setting works best for your machine and the herbs you are preserving.
The best herbs to preserve this way include Mint, Rosemary, Lavender, Thyme, Sage, Dill, Oregano, Basil, Tarragon, and Lemon Balm.
4. Freezing Herbs
There are a few methods to freezing herbs. The first one is good only for a few months and it is super simple to do. Simply place the (dry) herbs on a dried cookie sheet and place in a freezer overnight. Once they are frozen, place them in a ziplock and use as soon as they come out of the freezer but within a few months.
The next step is good if you expect it to take longer to use the herbs: Fill an ice cube tray one-fourth of the way full with herbs and three-fourths of the way with fresh water. Use as needed.
When you get ready to use them either let the water evaporate by sitting in a strainer or add them directly to what you are cooking if you do not think the extra water will affect the recipe. For example, you could make a soup that calls for two cups of water and then only use a cup and a half of water, knowing that the other half will come from the herb cubes.
If you plan to use them in stews or something else that water would not be a good choice in the recipe, you could substitute the water for oil. Again, I would recommend letting it sit out until the oil is thawed. This time let it sit in the bag or put it in a cup if you'd rather do that.
Also important to note: If you have a ton of basil and if you like pesto – this can be frozen as well. Just make it up and place in a sealed container in the freezer, pop out the night before you are ready to use it and wa-la!
The best herbs for this method include Basil, Dill, Cilantro, Tarragon, and Oregano.
5. Herbal Butter
Preserving herbs in butter is really fun and, honestly, you can get creative with this. I have made strawberry mint butter before. Here's what you do:
- In a stand mixer, combine butter and herbs/vegetables/fruit of choice
- Mix together
- Once it's blended to your consistency, stop and shape to your desire. I shape by using the good, sticks to itself Suran wrap.
- Cover well and place in freezer if using at a later date.
It's honestly that simple and so delicious. I love flavored butter on hot, fresh rolls.
If you are looking for a direct recipe, I recommend googling compound butter as that is another name they use for herb butter.
6. Herb Infused Vinegar
A really fun aspect of preserving using this particular method is you can reuse any old bottles you have that you like. It is important to note that you will need cork lids instead of metal ones with the vinegar though as the acid will eat away at the lid.
I typically use white vinegar or apple cider for most of my herb vinegar but this is another place where you can be creative because I have seen other people that use white wine for certain herbs and that just sounds divine.
Choose your herb(s) and place about half a cup of the herbs per two cups of the vinegar in order to get the best taste. You want to seal with the cork and place in a dark, dry place. The longer you let it sit (up to six weeks) the more intense the herb flavor will be.
If you want to seal the bottle for a long time because you know you won't be touching it for upwards of six months, coat your cork with beeswax and place on the bottle. Once it has hardened, seal the edges again with more beeswax until you are satisfied that it is sealed.
This one and the next one would be a really nice Christmas gift to give to family and friends who like to cook and entertain.
7. Herb Oil
This is a great way to preserve your spices and use them differently. I like to add my herb flavored oils to salads as an alternative to salad dressing. I have a bottle sitting in my fridge right now where I made my own Italian dressing using this method.
I like to use that Italian dressing on chicken as well.
The key here though is you have to dehydrate them and they have to be fully dried out before you add oil to them because if not the water from the herbs will mix with the oils and it will cause the oil to go rancid. You can use the two methods I used above or opt to dehydrate them in the oven, which I'll discuss in depth later.
So make sure the herbs are dried and then use the same combination as you did with the vinegar (half cup dried herbs to two cups oil).
Another great aspect of making your own herbed oils is that you can use the same beautiful bottling and corks that you did for the oil; however, you do not need to use the beeswax unless you really want to.
I recommend putting your oils in the refrigerator once you are finished.
8. Dehydrating by Oven
Sometimes it is just easier to turn on the oven. Sometimes it is nice to have the warmth in the house and we all know that the oven gives off a great smell when it's cooking something good. Or maybe you're already using it to dehydrate something else (like fruit roll ups).
There are many reasons to choose an oven over a dehydrator. No matter your reasoning, here are the steps on how to dehydrate herbs by oven method:
- Set your oven to the lowest setting (mine is 170° F).
- Lay herbs flat on a cookie sheet in one layer.
- Place in the middle rack of the oven for two to three hours
- In two / two and a half / or three hours, check for doneness. You will know they are done when they are crisp to the touch.
- Let cool, crumble if desired and put into a container of choice.
9. Make Different Extracts
This is one of my absolute favorite things to do with many of my herbs, especially mint. This started when I found out how easy (and cheap) it was to make my own vanilla. The steps are as simple as pour vodka in a cute jar and add vanilla bean(s). Wait six weeks and you have a good, strong vanilla extract.
That got me to thinking, can't I do that with mint? So last summer I pour vodka in a jar and added mint from the garden. Six weeks later I had mint extract and the rest is history.
Added benefit to making the different extracts is that you can add it to simple sugar to taste and you have coffee syrups. I like to give these away as Christmas gifts to my sisters as we are all big coffee drinkers.
Herbs are such a great investment to the taste of food and many of them require little maintenance to get started and keep going. They will provide you with an abundance of greatness and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to spice up their meals.
Preserving them means your food is tasty all year round and the cost savings makes it worth the time and effort. Enjoy and eat well, my friends!